Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Bloody Good Show On Clarendon Street - A Razor Sharp Production of "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston

For those of us who are at all conversant with the recent history of live theater in Boston, we hold this truth to be self-evident: that Spiro Veloudos knows how to mount a first-rate production of a musical! With the inaugural offering of the 2014-2015 season at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Spiro and his team present Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed musical thriller: "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

If you are a regular reader of The White Rhino Report, then you know something about theater.  So I will not bore you or insult your intelligence by giving a detailed description of the plot of this Grand Guignol tale of revenge.  Simply put, a naive London Barber by the name of Benjamin Barker is unjustly convicted and transported to Australia for life so that lecherous Judge Turpin is free to pursue Barker's lovely wife, Lucy.  Fifteen years later, Barker has escaped, taken on the identity of Sweeney Todd, and returns to London full of rage and revenge, a full blown misanthrope who believes that "they all deserve to die!"  As the plot develops, he teams with the widow, Mrs. Lovett to create a "joint venture" that allows "those up above to serve those down below."  Throw in some attempted blackmail, a few bloody murders, some unrequited love, a touch of cannibalism-cum-entrepreneurship and you have the recipe for a jolly good night at the theater.

There are several traits that make Mr. Veloudos such a successful director of musicals.  His creative team finds ways to use the limited space at the Lyric to everyone's advantage, playing up the opportunities for intimacy and nuance rather than the broad and grand gesture.  He knows how to cast good actors and singers and to use their unique talents in roles that allow them to shine. He offers them suggestions and options for how to build their characters, then he molds the cast into a cohesive unit that together can tell a convincing story.  And then he gets out of their way and allows them the freedom to soar.  All of these things are true of this current production of "Sweeney Todd" that is satisfying on many levels.

Music Director Jonathan Goldberg has created a musical foundation that under-girds the cast's interpretation of Sondheim's challenging rhythms, melodies and harmonies.  The two-story set designed by Janie E. Howland gives the actors plenty of room to roam and to create settings such as Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop, the Bake House, Fogg's Asylum for the Insane, and Sweeney's Tonsorial Parlor.  Rafael Jaen's costumes enhance each of the character's traits, personalities and social status. Franklin Meissner, Jr. has designed atmospheric lighting that limns each scene with its proper mood and chiaroscuro of shadow and brightness.  Sound design by Andrew Duncan Will ensures that each character is heard when we need to hear them, as well as adding the spice of shrill factory whistles and other sounds suggestive of a bustling London neighborhood.

The cast are wonderful actors and singers, filling the stage and performance space with Sondheim's hauntingly evocative minor chords and complex harmonies.  Here are some of the highlights of the performance that stood out for me.

Amelia Broome as Mrs. Lovett
Christopher Chew as Sweeney Todd
"By The Sea"
Photo by Mark S. Howard
  • The chemistry that develops and then dissolves and detonates between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett is a strength of this production.  Christopher Chew initially plays Todd as more understated than I have come to expect, but I grew to appreciate his unique approach.  I could feel the rage he harbors inside his betrayed heart build from a slow simmer to a volcanic eruption that became all-consuming.  Amelia Broome brings her own brand of coriander to this delicious role of Mrs. Lovett.  Anyone who ever saw Angela Lansbury play this role in her virtuoso performances cannot help but begin by comparing the incumbent with Ms. Lansbury.  Amelia Broome need not worry about such comparisons, for her Mrs. Lovett is a tour de force - a clean sweep by this Broome.  Her interpretation of the song "By The Sea" is a revelation, showing the innocent and hopeful girl who still lingers beneath the painted hussy of an accomplice to serial murder.
  • Todd and Lovett's duet that closes Act I - "A Little Priest"  - is one of the great songs in the history of musical theater, and these two fine actors carry off this complex number with aplomb and a gleam in the eye that matches the glint from Todd's razor.
  • The role of Tobias is crucial to any production of "Sweeney Todd" that aspires to greatness. The show rises and falls on a few key elements, and the song "Not While I'm Around" is one of those elements.  Phil Tayler was born to play this role.  I am quite familiar with Mr. Tayler's growing list of roles, and I see this as his finest work to date.  From the opening number, Tobias demands attention - a physically awkward and asymmetrical street urchin who will do anything to gain acceptance, a few pence in his pocket and a toothful of gin.  Watching him absorb the madness that surrounds him and become ever more unhinged is part of the wonder of this performance.  From his two-sided patter songs hawking two very different products - Pirelli's Miracle Elixir and Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pies - to his heart-breaking duet with Mrs. Lovett, this Tobias knows how to grind out his part of the story - smoothly and slowly.
Phil Tayler as Tobias
Amelia Broome as Mrs. Lovett
"Not While I'm Around"
Photo by Mark S. Howard
  • The role of Johanna, Barker and Lucy's daughter and Ward of Judge Turpin, can be a very challenging one to sing and to act.  Meghan LaFlam is undaunted by these challenges and sings her way into the heart of the handsome sailor, Anthony Hope, and into the heart of each audience member.  Her interpretation of the lilting "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" is lyrical and flawless.  As an actor, she walks a very narrow tightrope - fending off the lecherous advances of Judge Turpin while bursting at the seams with sexual longing for Anthony.  In this aspect of the role, Ms. LaFlam is more physically aggressive than many Johannas I have seen, but it is an approach that works and adds depth to this key character in the play.
  • Playing her love interest of Anthony is the very capable Sam Simahk.  His soaring tenor voice matches well his viral and swarthy sailor who serenades her from beneath her window, vowing "I'll Steal You, Johanna."  As an audience, we are convinced that this earnest and smitten young man will find a way to overcome the obstacles that Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford have placed in his path.
  • Paul C. Soper plays the cradle-robbing Judge Turpin.  Mr. Soper is an accomplished and acclaimed operatic singer and actor.  The beauty of his vocal instrument is on full display in the duet "Pretty Women" that he shares with Todd.  If I can find any fault with his performance - and I am quibbling here - it would be to observe that I found his acting to be less than convincing in the scene in which he is struck with self-loathing and self-flagellation because of his lust for Johanna.  I was simply not persuaded that he was whipping himself - physically or spiritually.  With that one exception, he carries himself well in the robes of the conflicted judge.
  • Remo Airaldi is a staple on Boston area stages, and he brings a very distinctive style to each role.  The Remo style pairs well with the role of the clownish sycophant Beadle Bamford.  A highlight of his performance is the scene in which he sits at Mrs Lovett's prized harmonium torturing her with songs that his mother adored.  These parlor songs go on forever, but he keeps us in stitches through each excruciating verse.
  • The role of Beggar Women is written as that of a one woman "Shriek Chorus," perpetually warning of the evil that lurks in the miasmal London fogs and smoke that emanates from Mrs. Lovett's ovens.  Lisa Yuen is well cast in this role, and her line "Don't I know you?" is heart-rending and pivotal in ushering in the denouement of this grizzly tale.
  • Davron S. Monroe plays a wonderfully flamboyant and smirking Pirelli, the mountebank barber who attempts to blackmail Todd.  His signature song, "The Contest" is a highlight of high comedy and low humor.
  • The rest of the very fine cast consists of Rishi Basu, Teresa Winner Blume, Shonna Cirone, Serge Clivio, Christina English, Sarah Kornfeld, Aaron Michael Ray and Matt Spano.
The play must close October 11, and tickets will be going like - well, hot meat pies - so order them.



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