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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Sweeney Todd at the Arden Theatre Company

Late in the second act of Sweeney Todd, one of the show's strangely endearing villains takes an innocent lad in her arms and sings, "Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around."

If only that were true. For in the Arden Theatre Company's new production of Sweeney Todd, nothing is safe. Director Terrence J. Nolen has thrust his audience right into the middle of nineteenth century London, and the audience can almost feel the blood of Todd's victims hit them. This Sweeney Todd holds almost nothing back.

For starters, there's the set. When you enter the Arden's headquarters in Olde City Philadelphia, the lobby is so sleek and modern that it's easy to forget you are inside a converted nineteenth century warehouse. For the Otto F. Haas Stage, however, set designer David P. Gordon has stripped the walls bare, revealing an irregular pattern of bricks that barely contain the outside world. The seats have been reconfigured to turn the sedate theater into an arena through which the characters course, spilling out onto ladders and stairways when the stage proves too confining. (There are even a dozen seats on a platform right in the middle of the action.) When Sweeney sings of his "Epiphany," he runs onto a ramp halfway up the amphitheater, nearly waving his razor in theatergoers' faces. Even when Todd and Mrs. Lovett are sitting sedately in their parlor, women from the streets can be seen leaning against the back wall, glaring at them in silent, sullen judgment. In short, the seedy world of nineteenth century London has rarely seemed so palpable. And the lighting (designed by John Stephen Hoey) makes this neighborhood seem even more dangerous; lights come from above or from the side, even from directly below - never from where you expect them to appear, leaving much of Todd's world as shadowy as Todd himself.

No wall, no stage can hold these characters, just like no jail could hold Sweeney Todd. As the barber who becomes a murderer to gain revenge on those who have ruined his life, Thom Sesma makes the brute human. When he learns what happened to his family during his fifteen years in prison, the anguish on his face is heartbreaking. But Todd is a character capable not only of violent murder but of violent mood swings, and in that same scene Sesma moves grief to seething rage to calm resignation to, when he sees the razors that he calls "My Friends," something approaching joy.

Sesma is also up to the vocal demands of one of Stephen Sondheim's richest and most challenging scores, as is the rest of the cast. Sesma's duet with Bev Appleton (as Judge Turpin) on "Pretty Women" is a thing of beauty, and in "A Little Priest" he and Mary Martello (as Mrs. Lovett) prove themselves to be great comedians as well as singers. Other vocal standouts include Elisa Matthews, whose pure, sweet soprano is perfect for Johanna, and Todd A. Horman, who digs into the role of the nefarious Beadle with relish. At the performance I attended, Josh Sauerman (filling in for Ben Dibble) played the virtuous Anthony - the closest thing this show has to a hero - with an appealing earnestness. However, his voice seemed shaky during the high notes of his solo "Johanna." Joshua Lamon has a sweet tenor to match his sweet demeanor as the tragic Tobias, while James Sugg brings eye-popping glee to the role of Todd's rival Pirelli.

As Mrs. Lovett, Todd's partner in crime, Mary Martello brings a nice comic zest to her scenes, yet her longing for Todd is never far from the surface. This Mrs. Lovett reaches out to caress Todd, only to get her hand batted away, yet never lets it deter her. Martello and Sesma are an excellent match.

Still, Martello can't enliven Mrs. Lovett's second act solo, "By The Sea"; through little fault of her own, it remains the most unnecessary moment in one of musical theater's most vital, exciting scores. (Todd spends most of the song with his face buried in a newspaper, ignoring her; one can hardly blame him.) And, while the theater configuration helps make the production exhilarating, it does mean that actors often deliver lines with their backs to the audience. As a result, some of wittiest lines written by Sondheim (and his collaborator, book writer Hugh Wheeler) are hard to hear at times. This is especially true in Martello's "The Worst Pies in London," and in "Ah, Miss," where poor staging ruins a good joke by the Beggar Woman (played by the excellent Denise Whelan).

But such distractions are minor. By thrusting the audience into an evocative setting, director Nolan and his expert cast and crew have made the danger of Sweeney Todd seem real and threatening.

For some, it might feel a little too real and threatening. Sweeney Todd still has the power to shock - at the performance I attended, several elderly patrons walked out after Todd's first murder, clearly shaken by the raw brutality of Sesma's performance. Those willing to stick with the show will find that the Arden has taken Sondheim and Wheeler's masterpiece about horror and death and managed to give it new life.

Sweeney Todd runs through June 19, 2005 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. Tickets range from $24 to $40. Half-priced tickets are available for balcony-style seats on stage with a partially obstructed view. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at http://www.ardentheatre.org , or by visiting the box office.

Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Musical direction ... Eric Ebbenga
Assistant Musical Director ... John Baxindine
Scenic Design ... David P. Gordon
Costume Design ... Marla Jurglanis
Lighting Design ... John Stephen Hoey
Sound Design ... Jorge Cousineau
Stage Manager ... John David Flak

CAST:
Thom Sesma ... Sweeney Todd
Mary Martello ... Mrs. Lovett
Bev Appleton ... Judge Turpin
Ben Dibble ... Anthony Hope
Todd A. Horman ... Beadle Bamford
Joshua Lamon ... Tobias Ragg
Elisa Matthews ... Johanna
James Sugg ... Pirelli/ Ensemble
Denise Whelan ... Beggar Woman
Kristin Purcell ... The Birdseller/Ensemble
Michael Phillip O'Brien ... The Passerby/Ensemble
Anthony Lawton ... Jonas Fogg/Ensemble
Ensemble: Michael Borton, Amanda Johnson, Shannon Lambert-Ryan, Katherine Mallon-Day, Katie O'Shaughnessey, David St. Louis, James Sugg, Rob Tucker


-- Tim Dunleavy



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