Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Troy Heard's direction is smooth, snappy and atmospheric, with minimal set changes to avoid disrupting the flow. Live music from the five-piece band, under Andrew Tyler's musical direction, brings Sondheim's thrilling melodies to life.
The cast is a strong ensemble. The breakout star is Annette Houlihan Verdolino as Nellie Lovett, whose "Worst Pies in London" miraculously become the toast of the town after the addition of a secret ingredient. Verdolino is a member of Actors' Equity, and her training and experience are apparent. Perhaps no one will ever surpass Angela Lansbury, who originated the role, but Verdolino's Lovett is very near perfect. Tasked with delivering the show's most intricate and clever lyrics in a wide range of musical styles, she excels. Every one of her numbers is a virtual showstopper. Not only is she a fine singer, but her acting strikes just the right balance between comedy and sobering venality. This is a master class in musical comedy performance.
The ingenue roles are also well cast. As Johanna, a prisoner of her lecherous guardian Judge Turpin (played with appropriate relish and fine vocals by Rob Kastil), the multi-talented Katie Marie Jones does not get to show off her formidable gifts for comedy and dance in this constraining role, but her beautiful soprano serves her well. Adam Dunson, another strong actor-singer, is both gentle and ardent as Anthony Hope, the sailor who is determined to rescue her.
As Sweeney Todd, the vengeful barber, James Whiting does a respectable job of projecting the character's tunnel-visioned determination and his descent into madness. He carries himself like a man hardened by 15 years in a penal colony. While his acting and vocal skills come up a bit short for this demanding role, director Heard has shaped his performance well, and his economy of movement enhances his physical presence.
Terrific supporting performances are provided by Joshua Meltzer as the music-loving Beadle, who is complicit in Judge Turpin's evil deeds, and Jamie Riviere as the Beggar Woman who refuses to be driven off. Steffan Scrogan is appealing as Tobias Ragg, the waif who turns to Lovett for maternal comfort after his master mysteriously disappears. Richie Villafuerte gives one of his best performances I've seen as Adolfo Pirelli, the rival barber and showy mountebank who threatens Todd.
The Design Ninjas' set design nicely evokes the back streets of London. A handful of moveable pieces transform the space from pie shop to barber's shop to parlor and back again, but Lovett's oven always occupies center stage, looking like a steampunk death's head with two menacing red eyes and a set of tooth-like vents. The set is nicely complemented by Marcus Randolph's lighting design, which goes blood red at all the right moments. The raked seating makes for excellent sightlines.
The production does have some shortcomings. Sweeney Todd is a show that benefits from a two-story set, and Majestic's use of a one-story design forces an unfortunate compromise in the murder scenes. With a two-story set, these scenes are both horrific and funny. Here, they are merely horrific and, at first, slightly confusing. Also, the projections that illustrate the barber's backstory are unnecessary and somewhat distracting, as they draw our attention away from the characters on stage, when we should be focused on how the storyteller is framing the tale, and how it affects the listener. The decision to use costumes that reflect an odd mix of time periods creates additional distractions. Finally, the theatre's acoustics are less than ideal. The piano overwhelms the vocals in the opening ensemble number, causing some of the lyrics to be lost. The same thing happens when Johanna sings from an overhead perch; we can hear her marvelous soprano, but miss too many of the words. The rest of the numbers are more successful, with Sondheim's dazzling lyrics coming through loud and clear.
Despite its flaws, this is a powerful production. Sondheim's genius is unmistakable. Majestic Repertory has another winner. Go ahead and take a bite.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through February 16, 2020, at Majestic Repertory Theatre, 1217 S. Main St., Las Vegas NV. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m. For tickets ($35 general admission) or further information, please visit www.majesticrepertory.com.