Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Sweeney Todd
Cygnet Theatre

Also see Bill's review of Alive and Well

Deborah Gilmour Smyth and
Sean Murray

Cygnet Theatre signaled its intent to become a major player in the San Diego theatre scene when it abandoned its storefront space in a hard-to-find area of town to assume control of a previously difficult-to-program space in Old Town, a major tourist district. The company risked financial disaster by closing the Old Town Theatre for extensive remodeling. With its current production of Sweeney Todd, however, it is clear that the risks have paid off and Cygnet has assumed the mantle of one of San Diego's leading companies.

Simply undertaking Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece in a small space is no mean feat. The sung-through show requires a multi-level set capable of moving smoothly and in cinematic style from scene to sung-through scene. It requires a large cast capable of performing the most wickedly operatic music in the Sondheim catalog, while at the same time creating credible and dimensional characters. And it requires a Sweeney Todd and a Mrs. Lovett who can keep the audience from shutting down when the Guignol becomes too grand.

All of these requirements are fulfilled in spades by the Cygnet Production, which continues through April 25. Drawing on a slew of Cygnet associate artists, including co-directors Sean Murray and James Vasquez, set designer Sean Fanning, lighting designer Eric Lotze, properties designer Bonnie I. Durben, costume designer Shirley Pierson, and sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood, the production takes full advantage of the remodeled Old Town Theatre space. While there are necessary compromises from what could be done on a larger stage, audiences can still thrill, for example, to the dispatching of bodies down a chute by the full use of the area that was dug out underneath the stage during the remodel.

The cast, too, is stellar, and includes many of the best singing actors in San Diego. Standout voices include Jacob Caltrider, who manages to make the lovesick Anthony Hope anything but sappy; Tom Zohar, who broke my heart with "Not While I'm Around"; Geno Carr and Steve Gunderson, whose Beadle and Judge Turpin perfectly complete each other; and Kürt Norby, whose Pirelli stands out because it is not over-sung for comedic effect. Credit, too, Charlie Reuter's musical direction for producing ensemble numbers that range from achingly beautiful to overwhelmingly powerful, and for figuring out ways to make eleven cast members sound like a company of forty.

All of this well-coordinated work would have faded away had Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett been played by actors giving middling performances. In these roles, the company is blessed with the presence of Mr. Murray, the Cygnet artistic director, and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, the associate artistic director of Lamb's Players Theatre. Each provides a well thought-out and well sung characterization, and the pair anchors everything around them with their confident presence.

Is Cygnet's Sweeney Todd a perfect production? No, not completely. I often wished for better diction and a richer tone from Cynthia Marty's Beggar Woman, and Ashley Fox Linton's Johanna is a tad too bland for my taste. My ears could have used a few more musicians (though, the five behind the stage play their hearts out).

All in all, though, this Sweeney Todd is one to cherish.

Cygnet Theatre Company presents Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Performances March 18 - April 25 at The Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Tickets ($17-$49) available by calling (619) 337-1525 or visiting the Cygnet Theatre website.

Sweeney Todd, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed by Sean Murray and James Vasquez, with Charlie Reuter, music director, Rosalee Barrientos, stage manager, Eric Lotze, lighting designer, Sean Fanning, set designer, Bonnie I. Durben, properties designer, Shirley Pierson, costume designer, Matt Lescault-Wood, sound designer, and Peter Herman, wig & make-up designer.

With Jacob Caltrider, Geno Carr, Sarah Michelle Cuc, Steve Gunderson, Trevor Hollingsworth, Ashley Fox Linton, Cynthia Marty, Sean Murray, K?rt Norby, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, and Tom Zohar.

Photo: Daren Scott

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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