Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of When You Wish, Me and My Girl, Hector Coris and Matt Newhard in Together (For No Good Reason), and Postcards from the Apocalypse
Full of dark wit, Sweeney Todd follows the story of a barber in 19th century London who was unjustly exiled and seeks revenge against Judge Turpin, the man who falsely imprisoned him with plans to steal his young wife Lucy and their infant child Joanna away. Upon his return, after fifteen years, he discovers that Turpin now has plans to marry the grown up Joanna and that Lucy was driven to suicide and took poison. With the assistance of Mrs. Lovett, a woman who runs a seedy meat pie bakeshop under the room where he used to live, Todd's thirst for blood grows. And soon Todd and Lovett are finding a most creative, and profitable, way to dispose of the bodies whose throats Todd has slit in his barber chair as he waits to get revenge against Turpin.
Sondheim's powerful score, which features soaring ballads, witty lyrics, and moving themes, and Wheeler's succinct book make for a rich, full, and rewarding experience, with plenty of moments of black comedy and horror. The themes of injustice and humanity are always relevant and, with MET's good cast and solid direction, the sophisticated and challenging show becomes a delicious and macabre treat.
Director Phillip Fazio has found a cast capable of delivering Sondheim's challenging score while also creating emotionally rich characters that are full of joy, strife and suffering. As Sweeney, Damon J. Bolling portrays Todd's brooding and always calculating mindset very well. While Bolling could use a touch more menace in his performance, and he stumbled on a few lyrics at the performance I attended, he didn't let it weaken his performance. His smooth, clear voice delivers some lovely notes throughout. Alaina Beauloye doesn't make one false move as Mrs. Lovett. Her wide, expressive eyes and calculating gestures bring a sheer sense of joyful excitement and relish to her every move. Beauloye's vocals are stellar and she and Bolling create some impressive moments together and they form a realistic couple. Their performance of the crowd pleasing "A Little Priest" is exceptionally well done.
As Anthony, the young sailor who is enamored with Sweeney's daughter Johanna, Michael Williams brings an appropriate sense of urgency and intensity to the part with his pure voice soaring to the rafters with clarity and amazing vocal control. Melody Startzell's portrayal and singing abilities as Johanna match Williams' and she does especially well with realistically portraying the change her character has in act two. Tim Shafer delivers the right sense of authority and self-righteousness as the lecherous Judge Turpin, and Jeffrey J. Davey instills Turpin's right-hand man Beadle Bamford with a strong threat of danger. Kathleen Berger is superb as the half-crazed Beggar Woman. She balances the melancholy and comical moments very well and her vocals are lush and lovely. As Pirelli, a barber who has a run in with Todd, Tedd Glazebrook is very good with strong vocals and a cunning demeanor. Rudy Ramirez brings a youthful sense of wonder to the role of Tobias, Pirelli's assistant. The duet he sings with Beauloye, "Not While I'm Around," is powerful.
Fazio does very well with his direction, ensuring the sweeping production never falters. He uses the entire auditorium very effectively with the ensemble at many times spread across the side stairs out in the audience and he derives heightened performances from his cast but never allows them to move into broad comedy or approach overacting. My only quibble is his decision to have almost the entire cast wear ripped costumes and putting the leads in shackles at the end. I'm not quite sure what he is going for with those directorial decisions but they clearly went over my head.
Musical director Debra Jo Davey achieves amazing vocals from the cast, including the strong ensemble that becomes a raging wall of powerful, rich harmonies numerous times during the show. Kerry Jordan's effective set design includes a large, rotating structure for Todd's barber shop and Lovett's pie shop as well as a very nicely constructed barber chair. Mickey Courtney's costumes are quite good, with rich colors and fabrics. Klay Wandalear's lighting is superb, using deep shadows and stark red lights to heighten and pinpoint the macabre moments.
The sheer beauty and genius of Sweeney Todd is how Sondheim's sophisticated score and Wheeler's book use sweeping music and humorous moments of black comedy to tell the moving story of a madman with extremely rewarding results. It is a challenging show; Mesa Encore Theatre's production and cast are clearly up to the challenge.
Mesa Encore Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd runs through May 29th, 2016, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.
Book by Hugh Wheeler
* Member, Actors' Equity Association