Reviewed by George Basler
In the 37 years since it was first staged, Sweeney Todd has become one of Stephen Sondheim’s most produced musicals. It’s also one of the darkest musicals ever to grace the Broadway stage.
Hearts and flowers aren’t on display here. Instead, hatred, lust and depravity take center stage in the penny-dreadful tale of bloody revenge in Victorian London.
The musical requires the cast to convey the right tone and also perform a difficult score with complex lyrical passages, atonal melodies and counterpoint. So it was a bold choice for the Endicott Performing Arts Center Repertory Co. to stage the show, which opened last Friday (Nov. 13) at the center’s Robert Eckert Theatre.
The gamble, to a large extent, pays off. For the most part, EPAC’s production is a well-sung and well-acted effort, effectively balancing moments of dark humor with an overall sense of dread. Helping create the mood is effective directing by John Penird, a striking set of Victorian London by Jeff Envid and atmospheric lighting by Lorraine Tennant.
One creative touch is having cast members in period costumes greet audience members as they enter the theater. The cast then morphs into an ensemble that will play a key role throughout the musical, acting a kind of Greek chorus. This is no small task, and the 14-member EPAC chorus is absolutely first rate in presenting some of the most demanding numbers in the musical.
Sweeney Todd, with a book by Huge Wheeler, is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond which was, in turn, based on Victorian melodramas featuring the serial-killing tonsorial stylist. The action revolved around Benjamin Barker, a naïve barber sentenced to life in prison in Australia by an evil judge who not only covets the barber’s wife but steals his daughter.
He escapes after 15 years and returns, using the name Sweeney Todd, to exact his revenge, but not before cutting the throats of a series of unsuspecting customers. These unfortunates are, in turn, recycled into meat pies by Sweeney and his partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett, a down-on-her-luck pie shop proprietor who is carrying a torch for the barber despite his rather unorthodox business practices.
In between, Sweeney gets involved in helping his daughter, Johanna, escape from the evil clutches of the judge to marry her sweetheart, a sailor who rescued Sweeney after his escape.
Sondheim has called the work “a dark operetta,” and it is staged in both opera houses and theaters. The musical’s real horror is not its campy gore, but its bitter and pessimistic view of human nature.
EPAC’s production is true to this bleak vision, but the musical also has its lighter moments, much of them provided by Terri-Jo Ramia’s spot-on portrayal of Mrs. Lovett.
The role is a plumb one, and Ramia is absolutely first-rate in it. The character is basically despicable, but Ramia makes her more darkly humorous than scary. Particularly effective is her rendition of “By the Sea” in the second act in which her character imagines a blissful future with Sweeney, who couldn’t care less.
Matt Gaska, as Sweeney, also does a creditable job in conveying the tortured soul of the homicidal barber. While the role calls for an operatic voice, Gaska is still able to convey Sweeney’s darkness.
At times, Gaska’s performance is a bit over the top. While Sweeney is supposed to go increasingly crazy as the play progresses, Gaska’s character is as mad as a hatter from the start. Still his performance is suitably fierce and compelling, especially in the song “Epiphany” near the end of Act One.
The large supporting cast is, for the most part, equally good. James Osborne convincingly makes Judge Turpin repellent and scary. His showcase song, “Johanna: Mea Culpa,” when he lusts after his ward, is chilling.
Joannie Anderson is equally compelling as the beggar woman, shifting from an object of pity to crazed intensity in a moment. Nicholas Sewchek brings a nice singing voice and presence to the role of Anthony, the lovestruck sailor. Jamie Cook, only 19, is suitably oily as Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s obsequious lackey. He also handled his complicated songs well. Tarek Chams has his humorous moments as Sweeney’s tonsorial nemesis, Pirelli, although his Italian accent was a bit thick at times.
Another standout is Christopher DaCosta as Toby, a young boy who becomes entrapped in Sweeney and Lovett’s evil. DaCosta catches the boy’s sweetness and naïveté and does a fine job singing “Not While I’m Around,” arguably the show’s best-known song.
The one questionable performance is Andrea Gregori as Johanna. Her main song, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” is designed to be light and delicate, but Gregori’s voice overwhelms it. Her portrayal also lacks the character’s dewy eyed innocence.
Overall, though, EPAC’s Sweeney Todd is a good, solid production. The cast is accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra, not pre-recorded music, which adds another worthwhile dimension to the show. Credit goes to Maureen Helms’ musical direction.
The show may not give you nightmares, but you may think twice about your next visit to the barber shop.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 20-21) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 22) at EPAC, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for senior and children 12 and younger. For more information or to order tickets, call 785-8903, or go to the website: www.endicottarts.com. The box office is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and one hour before curtain.