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Chicago by John Olson

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd
Michael Lindner as Sweeney and
Peter Pohlhammer
as Judge Turpin

In a city where memories of Bryn Terfel and George Hearn are still relatively fresh, one has to admire an actor willing to take on the title role of Sweeney Todd. Fortunately, in the case of Michael Lindner, who plays the demon barber in the current Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago production, one can admire his performance even more than his nerve. He shows much of the power of Terfel and the nuanced performance of Hearn, and holds his own quite well among the memories of those predecessors.

One of the first Equity performers to be hired by Porchlight under their new contract with the union, Lindner has toiled in mostly smaller parts in Equity houses like Marriott's Lincolnshire and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This role ought to raise his profile considerably on the local scene.

After productions at Ravinia and Lyric Opera, it's nice to see Sweeney up close again. Porchlight's production in a 148-seat theater gives Lindner the opportunity to use subtle changes of facial expression to communicate Sweeney's deep sadness as well as his rage. His motivations throughout the piece are crystal-clear and his vocals, along with those of the rest of the cast, first-rate.

Lindner's performance is matched by Rebecca Finnegan's thoroughly original take on Mrs. Lovett. Her Nellie is tough as nails and as devious as Judge Turpin, her musical comedy voice as sure and voluminous as Patti LuPone's. She earns the character's share of laughs but never at the expense of character development. As the Judge, the tall, slender and operatically experienced Peter Pohlhammer (made up to look gaunt and ghostly) makes a frightening Turpin. The cast also boasts terrific supporting performances by Scott Sumerak as an adult and simple-minded Tobias, by Jonathan Lamvick as a smarmy Beadle and by Stan Q. Wash as a menacing Pirelli.

A little less on the mark dramatically, though excellent musically, are the young lovers. Zach Ford is an attractive Anthony with a strong, confident singing voice, but he needs a bit more passion. His Johanna, Bethany Dawn, follows the operatic tradition of placing beauty of sound before clarity of lyrics, and gives Johanna a bewildered look that makes it difficult to share Anthony's desire for her. Kristen Frelich is a comical Beggar Woman, but could use more makeup to look older and dirtier.

The ensemble, composed mostly of Porchlight veterans usually cast in larger roles, gives an exceptional vocal performance. Their movement sometimes feels a little awkward, though, and their stylized facial expressions and freeze-poses a bit forced, especially in comparison with the less presentational performances of the principals.

It may be asking a bit too much to expect a four-piece band to handle the richness of the score, especially after hearing it performed by a 76-piece orchestras at Lyric Opera, or by the New York Philharmonic on the LuPone recording. At times, Music Director Eugene Dizon manages just fine with two keyboards and two woodwinds, but at other times I really missed a fuller sound.

Sets by Jaqueline and Richard Penrod set the mood and period efficiently and effectively, and include a fully functional barber chair complete with trap door and slide into the bake house. They added steel pipes that complement the real ones of the theater and accomplished a bit of homage to the factory design of the original Eugene Lee set. Carol Blanchard's costumes have a suitably grimy, period look.

Director Walter Stearns has put together a production that makes 19th Century London an inhuman and thoroughly frightening place, with or without a chorus of ghouls. The clarity of the interpretations and the musicianship of the performers make this Sweeney Todd a highly respectable performance of the Sondheim classic and a definite step up to the proverbial "next level" for Porchlight.

Sweeney Todd plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through November 7, 2004 at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are $27 and are available at the Theatre Building Box Office (773-327-5252) or through Ticketmaster (312-902-1500, www.tickemaster.com).


Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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