Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Full of dark wit, Sweeney Todd follows the story of a Benjamin Barker, a barber in 19th century London who was unjustly exiled and seeks revenge against Judge Turpin, the man who falsely imprisoned him with plans to steal away his young wife Lucy and their infant child Joanna. Upon his return, after fifteen years, Barker, who has renamed himself Sweeney Todd, discovers that Turpin now has plans to marry the grown up Joanna and that Lucy was driven to suicide. With the assistance of Mrs. Lovett, the woman who runs the seedy meat pie bakeshop under the room where he used to live, Todd's thirst for blood grows and soon he and Lovett are finding a most creative, and profitable, way to dispose of the bodies whose throats Todd has slit in his barber chair.
Any concerns over the nature of the story being too adult for a youth theatre company are assuaged by the fact that Sondheim has eliminated a few words of profanity as well as one song that is more adult and a couple of smaller musical moments. The end result is still a rich, full, and rewarding experience with all of the soaring ballads, witty lyrics, and moving songs intact. Sondheim's powerful score can be a challenge even for professional theatre companies so it's understandable that a youth theatre company may encounter some difficulties with the music. While the majority of the cast maneuver their way through the score with relative ease, there are a few brief moments in which notes are flat or sharp, high notes aren't attempted, or they are not held as long as they should be. But, for the most part, AYT's cast does well with one of Sondheim's most difficult scores.
The leads are pretty stellar. Brooding, pondering, and always deep in thought, Dale Mortensen doesn't make one false move as Sweeney. He instills the role with a calculated obsession, along with a furious sense of menace. Macy Wood is equally good as Mrs. Lovett. She brings a sense of excitement to the role. Her expressive eyes have a jolly wink in them. Wood and Mortensen form a good couple, each of them calculating in their own way. Their voices do well with their many solos and duets and their act one performance of "A Little Priest" is exceptionally well acted and sung.
As the lecherous Judge Turpin, Mark Munoz has the right sense of self-righteousness and authority and a stirring deep voice that works perfectly for the part. Benny Cowans has a lovely, warm voice and sweet disposition as Joanna, while Hayden Skaggs' clear voice and charm bring a purity to Anthony, the young sailor who is enamored with her. Joey Grado is appropriately arrogant as Beadle Bamford, Turpin's right-hand man, while Jessica Sinodis is sublime as the half-crazed Beggar Woman. As Pirelli, a barber who has a run-in with Todd, Joey Sortino is sensational, with a superb Italian (and later Irish) accent and a good singing voice. As Tobias, Pirelli's assistant, Austin Porter couldn't be better. His pure, clear singing voice and connection to the part are superb and his duet with Wood on "Not While I'm Around" is especially rewarding.
Director Zach Diepstraten does well with the challenging material. His decision to have Sweeney pull a red scarf from a victim's neck with his razor, instead of using blood to signify the many murders in the show, is a perfect solution to adapt the show for a younger audience yet still stay true to the original intentions of the material. While his decision to stage several scenes in the center aisle brings the action out into the audience and helps speed up the scene changes, he should move the action closer to the front row instead of having the entire scene play out in the middle of the audience, as patrons in the first few rows have to crane their necks to see what is happening behind them.
Musical director Karli Kemper gets lovely sounds from the cast, with very few errors made in the timing and phrasing of the difficult material, and choreographer Josh Lindblom's steps, including a fun waltz during "A Little Priest," work well without overpowering the show. Mike Smyth's set design is fairly minimal, though the barber chair that has a few secrets of its own that he created with Kerry Jordan is excellent. Aurelie Flores' costumes are just as good, with a mix of patterns and dark fabrics including some rich vests and coats that accent the dark story.
Sweeney Todd is macabre and intensely dramatic yet also extremely rewarding in the way that Sondheim's sophisticated score combines rich ballads and creatively written lyrics that are laced with black comedy to tell the story of a madman. The Actor's Youth Theatre production shows that challenging material can be delivered, and delivered well, when you have the right cast and the right creative team steering them in the right direction, while challenging themselves and their audiences.
The Actor's Youth Theatre production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through February 27th, 2016, with performances at the Tuscany Theatre, 861 N Higley Rd, Suite 105, Gilbert, AZ 85234. Tickets and information for this and upcoming productions can be found at www.actorsyouththeatre.org or by calling 480-907-7050.
Book by Hugh Wheeler