A Bloody Good Sweeney Todd at the 5th Avenue
Also see David's review of Little Women
If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it seems to have been director David Armstrong’s approach to bringing the first full-blown, all-pro version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s classic Grand Guignol musical Sweeney Todd. For all the fuss (pro and con) over the reconceived version about to open on Broadway, it’s a pleasure to hear the score with a full orchestra under conductor Ian Eisendrath’s impressively accomplished musical direction, and see it with a reasonable facsimile of the original Eugene and Franne Lee scenic and costume designs. All told it’s the most satisfying homegrown 5th Avenue Theatre production in some time, and one which seemed to delight Sondheim buffs and more staid 5th Avenue patrons alike.
Allen Fitzpatrick and cast
Armstrong’s direction honors the original Hal Prince model (which helped make the show a Tony award winner in 1979) as he tells the tale of the vengeful barber who returns to industrial age London some years after an unjust imprisonment, to find his old life in shreds, with his wife driven mad and apparently dead, and his now grown daughter the ward (and intended bride) of the same lecherous Judge Turpin who locked him up. Changing his name from Benjamin Barker to Sweeney Todd, he allies himself with the ruthless but smitten pie maker Mrs. Lovett, and begins slashing customer’s throats, in wait for an opportunity to get to the judge. Mrs. Lovett meanwhile goes from pathetic to posh as Todd’s victims provide a savory filling and demand for her meat pies.
Two Broadway veterans, Allen Fitzpatrick and Carol Swarbrick are paired effectively as Todd and Lovett. Fitzpatrick is a rather younger, more dashing and ultimately more sympathetic figure than in most versions of the show, and he gives full value to Sondheim’s matchless lyrics, though musically his lowest notes were a bit underpowered on opening night (and not aided by woeful sound and microphone problems). Swarbrick lacks a certain comedic edge in her early scenes, but once she and Fitzpatrick bring act one to a riveting close with Sondheim’s pun-tastic “A Little Priest” she grows increasingly mesmerizing.
Arguably though, what makes this production of Sweeney Todd a cut above the rest is the fantastic supporting cast. Benjamin Schraeder endows the role of the addled urchin Toby with real heart, and a voice that soars on his featured number “Not While I’m Around.” Leslie Law is quite unforgettable in an incredibly rich portrayal of the mysterious Beggar Woman. Julian Patrick brings a surface joviality to the slimy Judge Turpin, which makes the character even more unlikable, and Patrick’s evergreen bass voice is, as always, a pleasure to behold. Sal Mistretta glimmers in his too brief role as Pirelli, a scheming rival barber. Sarah Anne Lewis and Ivan Hernandez as Johanna and Anthony make a fine pair of slightly daffy young lovers. Roland Rusinek is ideally cast, physically and vocally, as the Judge’s menacing yet music-loving cohort Beadle Bamford (and what a treat to get to hear this character’s often deleted “Tower of Bray” parlor song, so often cut from productions of the show). The almost entirely local vocal ensemble offer real character delineation, on top of a glorious sound, in their frequent scenes and refrains of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention all the blood squirting that goes on. What would Sweeney Todd be without it? But, then, this is 2005, when the blood-letting and throat cutting on television shows like Nip/Tuck and The Sopranos comes into our living rooms on a weekly basis. It’s not the blood-letting that will keep you in your seats at the 5th Avenue, but the quality of the product.
Sweeney Todd runs through Nov. 13 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., downtown Seattle. For more information visit the 5th online at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.