Monday, November 7, 2011

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" by University of Pittsburgh

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a Sondheim musical built upon a British urban legend of a deranged barber who, seeking revenge on the world for the cruel fate of his beloved wife, slits the throats of men who come looking for a shave. Also embroiled in the story is a sexually deviant judge, a ruddy sailor and the female owner of the pie shop that would cannibalistically get rid of the bodies.

Eponymous will begin with the bad so to end with the good. Richard Teaster, who plays the titular character, has one of the FINEST Sweeney Todd voices Epony has ever heard. Truly, it is amazing to hear with all the low notes but not an ounce of gravel. However, his acting is abysmal. Teaster comes across like some deposed Lawrence Olivier who has a nose in the air as self-righteous as those he despises. We are presented with a Sweeney who has no actual passion when killing, no grief, madness, rage or desire - just the arm motions of it.

Worst of all, this seems to bring down the performance of Theo Allyn, Mrs. Lovett. While Allyn seems to strain for the alto role, it was fascinating to see the usually bouyant, outrageous character of Mrs. Lovett played so humanly. Instead of the instigator, Allyn shows us a woman not equally mad as Todd, but a conflicted woman - who is basically good - getting pulled down by her love for Todd. However, since Teaster's Todd isn't that imposing or manipulative, she seems to fade into the background for most scenes.

The production itself is quite interesting, completely minimalistic with a practically bare stage populated only by actors and some small furniture pieces. However, this acts as a double-edged sword as it sometimes makes way for absolutely wonderful ensemble numbers and other times leaves the actors nothing to do but stand and sing to the audience. It's almost as though this is a more feminine production of Sweeney Todd; it focuses heavily on the women and gives them more depth (Joanna is actually shown as clever and sexually curious despite her attachment to a doll), but, unfortunately, this also seems to mean a lot less killing and completely unconvincing fight/death choreography. Even the shaving of Mr. Todd, supposedly the best in London, is done with little conviction. There isn't even a scream when a woman is thrown into FIRE.

Now for the good: the director, Lisa Jackson-Schebette, truly takes the show into new territories. As stated before, the women on the show are given whole new identities, there is brilliant staging of the ensemble cast and silent moments that are completely new to the story. Joanna's predicament in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" is wonderfully demonstrated by her stage movements being constantly shadowed by a Victorian-house birdcage (also beautifully sung with a bell-like voice by Ashley Krysinski). The program even list several female swings for lead male roles - which this Eponymous reviewer would personally love to see. And whole new spins are put on songs. For instance, "A Little Priest" is turned into a fantastic seduction between Lovett and Todd (or, at least, it would've been had the actors been more into it.)

 Not enough great things can be said about the ensemble cast. They have a fantastic sound as a chorus, are constantly invested in their action, and basically a joy to watch throughout. Tara Velan as the Beggar Woman truly distiguishes herself (in a very small amount of time) as a fantastic singer and brilliant performer who makes the most of every second she's onstage. In Velan's character is where we truly get to see the madness and passion that should be throughout the entire show. Similarly, Rocky Paterra as Toby is magnanimous with a beautiful voice, high energy and charisma that wins everyone - again, he makes the most of a much smaller role. Andy Nagraj as Judge Turpin truly commits to the seedy role and truly "goes there" - physically, emotionally - in respect to the depravity of the judge.

Much has been made about the live University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orcherstra that accompanies the production - and it truly does bring an amazing depth to the production and should probably be adopted as the standard for the Mainstage shows (provided the sound system can be made to not "pop" continuously.) But on the whole, an amazing supporting and ensemble cast coupled with a truly inventive production are what make this Sweeny Todd one to see.

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic lives,breathes and can currently be found at the top of a very steep hill producing snow by the constant snip, snip, snipping of Epony's balpoint-pen hands on reviews sculpted entirely from ice. Ice sculpted reviews available upon request and refridgeration.

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