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Southern Florida by John Lariviere


Sweeney Todd

Also see John's review of The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweeney ToddSweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, slices its way into Miami at Carnival Center's Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House for a limited one week engagement.  This national tour of the innovative reconceptualized Stephen Sondheim musical is a co-presentation of the Florida Theatrical Association and Stanford Broadway Across America - Miami, presented by Moet & Chandon and the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.

The story of Sweeney Todd is an adaptation of the 1973 Christopher Bond play (itself based on a 19th century British penny dreadful) in which a London barber is driven to murder after a malevolent judge took his wife and child from him, and sentenced him to serve time in a penal colony. The barber returns to his home years later, unrecognized and under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd, to find his wife gone and his daughter now the ward of the judge.  Sweeney plots his revenge and forms a cutthroat partnership with Mrs. Lovett, the enterprising owner of a faltering pie shop. Upstairs, Sweeney reopens his barber shop and there, in the words of Sondheim, "He shaves the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter are heard of again."  Soon, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are producing the tastiest meat pies in London. 

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd originally opened on Broadway on March 1, 1979, at the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin).  Directed by Harold Prince, the production ran for 557 performances and won a total of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Director John Doyle's production of Sweeney Todd was originally staged by the Watermill Theatre in England, transferring first to the Trafalgar Studios in July of July 2004, and then to the New Ambassadors Theatre, where it ran for a limited engagement that closed on February 5, 2005.  It opened on Broadway later that year, where Doyle received a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

In Doyle's production, the cast has been reduced to 10 main characters, and the chorus and orchestra have been eliminated.  The 10 main characters remain on stage throughout the entire show and play the accompanying instruments as well.  New orchestrations by Sarah Travis accommodate this scaled-down version.  Sets, props and costuming have been scaled down as well.  A single set and the simplified staging are more representation and conceptual than literal.

The performers in this production redefine the term "triple threat." They are all impressively talented;  they must be, in order to sing and act and play at least one instrument.  There is never a moment's rest for any of them, as they are singing, acting and/or playing their instrument for the entire show. Edmund Bagnell on violin and Lauren Molina on cello both play beautifully; with Katrina Yaukey on accordion, they seem the strongest on their instruments amidst a cast of able players.

Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett is calm and calculating.  Her calm delivery and excellent comic timing make the inherent humor of Sondheim's lyrics shine through.  She is a stronger actor than her counterpart David Garry (who is understudying David Hess) as Sweeney Todd.  He comes across more weary than fearsome.  Lauren Molina is a wonderfully fragile and quivering Johanna.  The eager Tobias is played to perfection by Edmund Bagnell.  His energy is boundless. 

As The Beadle, Benjamin Eakeley is far more handsome than expected in a part usually portrayed as portly and greasy.  He also has a beautiful singing voice, and one wishes he had more to sing.  Benjamin Magnuson is believable as Anthony.   Keith Butterbaugh as Judge Turpin is smooth rather than slimy, and does a fine job. Diana Dimarzio as the Beggar Woman sings and plays the difficult part heartily. 

Let us consider the problematic nature of all the characters being on stage all the time while they play their instruments.  Do they react to the scene around them even when their character isn't in it?  It seems that the actors themselves could not agree on that, for only the actor playing Toby (even before his character has been introduced) reacts in those scenes.  He actually is so over-animated that he becomes distracting, and I could not determine whether the actors were intended to be musicians inside or outside the piece.  As the show progresses, the staging becomes too much about passing off instruments and straddling ladders.  One of the oddest lasting visual images is that of Mrs. Lovett walking across stage in black fishnet stockings and two-inch heels while playing the tuba.  As the audience chuckled at the absurdity of the image, one could not help but feel the director's intent may have missed the mark.  Some of the symbolic staging misses the mark as well.  In a version of the song "Johanna," Judge Turpin sings about the object of his desire whilst attempting to purge himself of his desires of the flesh.  The original staging had the kneeling Judge stripped to the waist, while torturously engaging in self-flagellation which is punctuated by the music. This production has all of the musical punctuations and a fully clothed Judge kneeling while singing, with none of the actions that define the moment and the song.  It went over the heads of most of the audience.

One of the most objectionable things in this version of Sweeney Todd is the changing of the sex of one of the characters, Pirelli, from male to female.  The character of Pirelli speaks and sings with an exaggerated Italian accent.  His vocal solo lines are written in the gushing tenor style of the Italian Street Song.  This sound simply does not translate in the female voice, and the humor and punch of the character is ruined.  Only a moment of contemplation as to why Doyle chose to make Pirelli a female is required.   Not only are the 10 cast members singing their own parts, but they are doubling as the ensemble.  There are only three female roles amongst the lead characters, and, since the show contains four part harmony for female voice, another female is needed.

Doyle's version of Sweeney Todd has merit for its creativity, but this revival should come with the disclaimer that it is not your mother's Sweeney Todd. Certainly the savvy theatregoer knows before buying tickets what they will be seeing, but many season ticket holders around the country will not.  This was acutely obvious by the confused reaction of many of the patrons on the night attended.  Gone are the gory effects that frighten us. Gone is the imposing sound of a full orchestra. Gone also is the sound of a full ensemble singing Sondheim's glorious harmonies, especially noticeable in the finale.  While some may enjoy the daring experimental-theatre feel of this piece, comparing it to the original is like comparing one of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies to filet mignon.

Stanford Broadway Across America - South Florida is presented in arrangement with the Florida Theatrical Association.  The Florida Theatrical Association is a non-profit, civic organization with a volunteer board of trustees established to ensure the continued presentation of quality national touring Broadway productions in the state of Florida.  Broadway Across America is dedicated to creating memorable and accessible theatrical experiences for all guests, selling over 5 million tickets to first rate Broadway shows, family productions and other live theatrical events in over 40 North American cities each year.  For more information or to purchase tickets through an authorized agent, please visit www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com. 

Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street appeared January 1, 2008 - January 6, 2008 at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House in the Carnival Center For The Performing Arts in Miami, FL. For information or to purchase tickets for the many diverse offering of the Carnival Center, you may contact them at 305-949-6072, or visit them at www.carnivalcenter.org.  Tickets are also available in person through Ticketmaster  by phone at 305-358-5885 in Dade County, in person at Ticketmaster outlets,  or on line at www.ticketmaster.com.

Cast
Judy Kaye: Mrs. Lovett - Tuba, Orchestra Bells, Percussion
David Garry: Sweeney Todd - Trumpet, Orchestra Bells, Clarinet, Percussion
John Arbo: Jonas Fogg - Bass
Edmund Bagnell: Tobias - Violin, Clarinet
Keith Butterbaugh: Judge Turpin - Trumpet, Orchestra Bells, Percussion
Diana Dimarzio: Beggar Woman - Clarinet, Keyboard
Benjamin Eakeley: The Beadle - Clarinet, Keyboard, Saxophone
Benjamin Magnuson: Anthony - Cello, Keyboard
Lauren Molina: Johanna - Cello
Katrina Yaukey: Pirelli - Accordion, Keyboard, Flute

Crew
Director: John Doyle
Musical Direction: David Loud and Andy Einhorn
Scenic Design: Matt Kinley
Lighting Design: Richard G. Jones
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Wig and Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Makeup Design: Angelina Avalone
Production Stage Manager: Newton Cole

The actors and stage managers in this production are members of Actor's Equity Association, the union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.


See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.

-- John Lariviere



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