Looks like Artistic Director Rick Lombardo has another triumph on his hands. A week before giving its first performance, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had already sold more advance tickets than anything in the New Repertory Theatre's nearly twenty year history. Based on what happened once word got out about his production of Waiting for Godot, those wishing to see Sweeney Todd as it was always meant to be are advised to skip to the end of this piece now and order tickets.
From the prescient sounds of the organ as you enter the theatre space to the astonishing ringing of the rafters when the twenty-four member ensemble reprises "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" some three hours later, this is an astonishing experience. The imposing Victorian stone edifice the New Rep shares with the Newton Highlands Congregational Church proves to be the perfect setting for this masterwork by Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book).
The rest of the principals follow suit, offering illuminating glimpses into the lives of the clueless, the helpless and the powerless, all trying to keep their footing in a world gone out of control. The performances in this production lend support to Hal Prince's contention that Sweeney is really about impotence. You can actually see these poor souls thinking.
The unabashed naivety of Anthony and Johanna is made touching by Brent Reno and Liane Grasso. The forlorn needs of society's outcasts are strongly represented by the Tobias of Austin Lesch and the Beggar Woman of Leigh Barrett. And the amoral fortitude of the likes of The Beadle and Pirelli, each willing to do anything to improve his station, is brought home by Robert Zolli and Evan Harrington. Even Judge Turpin, the only one in a position of power, is revealed by Paul D. Farwell to be a man unable to control his own prurient desires.
Johnson and Carroll also set the standard for walking the fine line between delicious farce and gut wrenching melodrama called for by Sondheim and Wheeler. Lombardo and music director Janet Roma are to be credited for shaping the trajectory of the piece and ensuring the necessary balance of these two elements.
Much deserved praise is also due the design team (Peter Colao, scenic design; Frances Nelson McSherry & Christine Alger, costume design; Franklin Meissner, Jr., lighting design) as well as the entire technical crew for bringing Victorian London so vividly to life and somehow managing to fit it all into so little space.
Over the years Sweeney Todd has inched up on my list of greats. I admired the sheer audacity of the original production. The simpler, more intimate National Theatre production at the Cottesloe Theatre in London gave me a new appreciation for the writing and the theatrical possibilities. This production at the New Rep confirms my more recent conviction that the writing is unsurpassed and that the material deserves to be performed only by actors at the top of their form who also happen to be excellent musicians and superb singers.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been extended through June 8 at the New Rep Theater, 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands, Mass. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 617-332-1646 or online at www.newrep.org. Performance schedule and directions Ito the theatre (easily accessible by 'T') are also available online.
Boston represents a homecoming, of sorts, for O'Keefe who got his start at Harvard writing for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. The runaway success of the SpeakEasy production of Bat Boy: The Musical has firmly established O'Keefe as a Boston favorite whom everyone would like to see a lot more from. (Bat Boy returns April 30th for a third 4-week run at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ticket information is below.)
The penultimate moment of this special InConcert event was Boston's own Bat Boy, Miguel Cervantes, joining forces with the original New York Bat Boy, Deven May, for a resounding rendition of "The Revival Scene." They were supported by the full company of special guest artists (Becca Ayers, Mo Rocca, Debra Wiseman and Katherine LaRochelle) and SpeakEasy veterans (Jon Blackstone, Sara Chase, Kerry Dowling, Lisa Korak, David Krinitt, Michael Mendioloa and Kevin Ramsey).
O'Keefe served as "interlocutor" and conductor/pianist. He was ably backed by the Boston Bat Boy ensemble: the inveterate Paul Katz on keyboard, Tom O'Malley on percussion, Jon Wilkins, bass and Dominic Civiello, guitar.
The performance was so diverse and so entertaining that it's difficult to cite highlights. Some of the more "unusual" moments included Mo Rocca as an eighty-eight year old chorine, Miguel Cervantes costumed as a lovesick sheep and Jon Blackstone (Ed Kleban from A Class Act) in rhinestone earrings, another Hasty Pudding veteran called back to active duty.
Not all of O'Keefe's writing is fit for ordinary consumption. (Think South Park: The Musical on DVD with the English subtitles turned on.) That having been said, "Sensitive Song" is one of the funniest songs in the world. No matter the expense, consider rounding up enough friends so you can afford to fly O'Keefe and Deven May in to perform this in somebody's living room.
Except for a minor slip-up when commissioned by nuns at a tender age, O'Keefe proved that he writes to spec just as well as he does when producing the wonderful wacky stuff. Two of the loveliest songs are from Sarah, Plain and Tall, a current Theatreworks / USA touring production for young people. His wife Nell Benjamin (a recent Kleban winner) contributed splendid lyrics to that show and to The Mice, their contribution to Hal Prince's 3hree. O'Keefe's most recent work was represented by "Wake Up," from a work-in-progress being developed with David Shiner.
Details from the program:
You Drive Me To Drink (from Euphoria) Deven and Debra
Tell Me Dr. Freud
Song for the Nuns (Moo!)
Two Hours Here
Song of the Hypochondriac Shepherdess and her Lovesick Sheep
The Cutting Room Floor
The Hemp Song!
Is It Me You Want to Kiss
Sing You to Sleep
The Revival Scene: A Joyful Noise / Let Me Walk Among You /
A Joyful Noise Reprise
Bat Boy: The Musical presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company returns April 30th to May 25th to the Boston Center for the Arts: BCA Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. To Purchase tickets call the Boston Center for the Arts box-office at 617-426-2787. The box-office is opens Tuesdays through Sundays at noon. Subscribers can get discount tickets and priority seats by calling SpeakEasy Subscription Manager Jim Torres at 617-437-7731.
I was curious about Side Show because I'd heard such good things about the 1999 Boston Conservatory of Music production and about another very successful one done a year later in Arlington that featured a very talented pair of real-life sisters as Daisy and Violet.
The current production at the Lyric Stage is a handsome one thanks to the dazzling, rich, colorful costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley and the wonderful circus environment created by scenic designer Janie E. Howland. The painted floor covered in a patchwork of side show posters works beautifully in this steeply raked three-sided arena.
What doesn't work so well with the audience on three sides, however, is positioning the two main characters sitting or standing immobile at stage center for entire scenes. Forced to turn enough to the side so as to include audience members seated there, Maryann Zschau (Daisy) and Susan Molloy (Violet) as the conjoined twins, play entire scenes turned away from each other. And they are so adorable executing dance steps in the vaudeville routines, it's a shame Veloudos doesn't move them around some when they aren't performing.
But these limitations weren't the biggest problem I have with Side Show. I simply don't get the attraction of sung-through musicals. Recitative seems silly. Endless songs that build to the point where I fear someone is about to burst a tonsil make me weary. I found some of the numbers written in the performance style of the period - "When I'm By Your Side", "We Share Everything" and "One Plus One Equals Three" - to be tuneful and rhythmic with charming lyrics that also manage to make a point. But the rest is a long, loud snooze.
The facts about Daisy and Violet Hilton that Side Show is based on are pretty fascinating. Ostensibly the show sets out to demonstrate that their dreams - stardom, riches, travel, love and marriage - are no different from what other girls wish for. But scene after scene comes down to a question of whether any of the men in their lives (Christopher Chew, Peter A. Carey and Brian R. Robinson) are ready, willing and able to give them what they really want. Too much of the time that translates into speculation about their sex lives.
The principals do the best they can with the material. The rest of the ensemble have fine voices, but a little more weight might have been given to dance ability considering the nature of the vaudeville and follies numbers.
My biggest disappointment, however, is the reliance on a sound system. I've come to expect it in larger venues, but never thought I'd see the day when every performer at the Lyric Stage appeared to be packing one - a wireless mike, that is. Pretty discouraging to be attending live theatre in a rather cozy space and hear an audience member enthusiastically exclaim at intermission, "What a great sound system!"
Side Show now through May 31st at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, Mass (in the YWCA Building.) For tickets and information: (617) 437-7172 or online at www.lyricstage.com.