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Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetAsolo Repertory Theatre
William S. Oser | Season Schedule


Allen Fitzpatrick (center) and Cast
Photo by Cliff Roles
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the musical I have seen most often in my life, probably close to 30 times. It isn't because it is one of my favorite shows, I rarely listen to the superb original Broadway dast album or any other. I can certainly be carried away by the macabre goings on in this grand guignol tale of lust and revenge, and I have little doubt that it is one of Stephen Sondheim's masterpieces (book by Hugh Wheeler). For me it remains a bit repulsive, being asked to laugh at and celebrate such mayhem. In fact, at the performance I attended of this Asolo Repertory Theatre production, which began at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis, there were numerous walkouts at intermission. But it is a masterpiece and in its own unique way, hugely entertaining.

The problem with any production of Sweeney Todd is balancing the musical needs vs. the drama. For me, Tim Burton's 2007 film severely underserved Sondheim's musical demands, but I returned to see it a second time, more prepared to look past its deficiencies, and I found the director's seething view of the story fascinating. The 1989 Broadway revival, the first to be called "Teeny Todd," was woefully inadequate musically.

This production offers full faith and credit to the musical end of things, though some of the acting by secondary principals is a little lacking in specificity. It packs a dramatic punch due to a lavish set (designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson), fantastic lighting design (by Paul Whitaker), and mostly excellent costuming (by Alice Louise Fredrickson). It still might be dubbed a teenier Todd due to there being only 10 people in the cast, but even though I would have loved four to six more people to fill out the choral interludes based upon Dies Irae chant ("Swing your Razor High, Sweeney"), they are adequately covered. Seeing a principal character recently involved in the story suddenly become part of the "chorus" can be a bit disconcerting. It is only the biggest scenes, the Pirelli encounter, the opening of act two, and "City on Fire" that don't register in quite the way I think they should. As with last year's Ragtime, director Peter Rothstein has successfully made a huge piece more financially accessible for a medium sized company.

Allen Fitzpatrick is a strong, forceful Sweeney, finding a creditable balance between ferocious anger from start to finish and at least a modicum of humanity. His singing is solid without distracting from his acting, an excellent balancing act. Sally Wingert as Mrs. Lovett appears to have watched the video of the original Broadway production and copies much of Angela Lansbury's physical business during "The Worst Pies in London." If you are going to study someone else's performance, make it a brilliant one, which Lansbury's was. She plays more for the daffy, less for a real emotional center. It is a fine performance of a highly demanding role, stronger for the acting than the singing.

Elizabeth Hawkinson is Johanna opposite Perry Sherman as Anthony. Both do well by treacherously challenging vocal parts. If she cannot quite find comfort in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" in its original key, neither can almost anyone else who attempts the song except opera singers (even Judy Collins takes it down a third in her recording). Both navigate the quartet, with Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin, with great poise. Sherman's Anthony does not define the pull between his friendship with Sweeney and his love/lust for Johanna, but might if he were more able to concentrate only on his character. Sara Ochs presents us with a harrowing Beggar Woman, jumping from one reality plane to another. Colin Anderson is properly oily as Beadle Bamford. His singing and acting find an excellent balance, both well done. James Ramlet vocally nails Judge Turpin, written very low, and wows in the acting as well. He must have an incredible range as a singer because he is called upon to cover fairly high baritone parts in chorus interludes. Evan Tyler Wilson has the right Irish tenor top that Sondheim requires for Pirelli and his acting is nicely judged as well. David Darrow is perhaps not ideally cast as Tobias. He sings the part well enough, but neither his acting nor his vocal color suggest a man-child. Once his wig is off, mid act one, he comes across as almost a leading man. The cast is rounded off with Benjamin Dutcher as Jonas Fogg and populating the chorus.

Peter Rothstein's direction is a blend of elements garnered from various high profile Sweeney Todd productions. That is not a bad thing, as he has chosen his pieces wisely. Gregg Coffin is music director, leading six pieces. They support the production well.

Sweeney Todd is not a musical for everybody. Sarasota and beyond audiences wanting to experience this musical in a first class production, head to Asolo Rep.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, through June 1, 2019, at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Mertz Theater in the FSU Center, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, call the box office at 941-351-8000 or visit www.asolorep.org.

Cast (in order of appearance): Beadle Bamford: Colin Anderson*
Tobias Ragg: David Darrow*
Jonas Fogg: Benjamin Dutcher*
Sweeney Todd: Allen Fitzpatrick*
Johanna: Elizabeth Hawkinson
Beggar Woman: Sara Ochs
Judge Turpin: James Ramlet
Anthony Hope: Perry Sherman*
Adolfo Pirelli: Evan Tyler Wilson*
Mrs. Lovett: Sally Wingert*
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association

Musicians (in alphabetical order): Conductor/Piano: Angela Steiner
Reeds: Tom Ellison
Violin: Carlann Evans/Sean O'Neil
Cello: Susannah Kelly
Percussion: Thomas E. Suta
French Horn: Brandon Maharaj/DanaWilliams


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