The musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is one of the most difficult — if not the most difficult — shows to ever grace a Broadway stage.
Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics are dense and complex, with some as rapid as machine-gun fire, others sung contrapuntally, still others jarringly dissonant. Since the story is mostly sung-through, it's imperative that the players not only sing those difficult melodies, but also clearly articulate each word so that the audience can follow the story.
The production playing weekends through Oct. 21 at Stage West Community Playhouse is successful on this crucial point about 80 percent of the time, with a couple of glaring exceptions that leave the audience members puzzled as to what is going on, especially those new to the show.
Set in a gritty, mid-19th century London slum, Sweeney Todd is the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber who was sent to an Australian prison by a judge lusting for Barker's beautiful young wife. Stage West pulls no punches showing the judge raping the fragile woman as a dancing mob laughs and giggles in cruel delight (this show isn't for the kiddies, by the way).
Barker returns to London after 15 years in exile, calls himself Sweeney Todd, and swears vengeance. With the help of the widow Nellie Lovett, a pie shop owner and his landlady before he was sent away, Todd goes at it with his bloody razor flying. The gruesome twosome turn Todd's victims into tasty meat pies, making the shop a big success, as a pitiful Beggar Woman warns one and all of the dreadful deeds going on right under their olfactory-offended noses.
Meanwhile, the young sailor who saved Todd's life after a shipwreck finds and falls in love with Todd's flaxen-haired daughter, who is kept prisoner by the lecherous judge — the very judge Todd has vowed to kill.
The theme is a commentary on the cutthroat nature of all mankind — "everyone does it, but none so well, as Sweeney Todd," the chorus cries as throats are slit all over the stage.
George Dwyer is magnificent as Todd, with makeup artist Libby Campo giving his face the pale, craggy look that tells Todd's personal tragedies at a glance. Dwyer's deep, powerful voice and rugged physicality are movingly right for this role, and his well-defined words eloquent.
Music director Wayne Raymond's 14-piece orchestra provides jaw-dropping beauty to accompany the many fine voices in this production, with special notice for Laura Rieker on flute, Michele Rose's clarinet, David Helfrich's French horn, Julianne Brown and Mariah Dixon's violins and Steven Schildbach's gorgeous piano. Joel Brown and Daniel's Maher's mournful cellos add just the right touch.
Young Jamie Smeriglio is a joy as Tobias Ragg, the innocent child drawn into Todd and Mrs. Lovett's craven world. His yearning Not While I'm Around, where he vows to protect the undeserving Mrs. Lovett, is poignantly prescient and showcases his bell-like tones.
Stan Kane does a fine job as the vile Judge Turpin, humming happily along as he plots the dirtiest of deeds. Dalton Benson's Beadle Bamford is appropriately fawning to the judge and nasty to others, misusing his power like an old pol. Patrick Moran does a smarmy Pirelli, Todd's rival "Italian" barber, to a turn, with spot-on accents that fit his changing personae.
Victoria Primosch's Johanna is lovely, and though it's near impossible to understand her words, sung soprano, her few lines of dialogue and her actions when with her would-be lover Anthony Hope (a charming Jeff Schoonmaker) make clear what the audience needs to know, and Anthony Cromartie's Jonas Fogg, the asylum warden, tells the rest.
Especially touching is Patricia Villegas as the Beggar Woman, who foreshadows disaster at every turn and delivers it in spades. Costume designer Myndee Fleury Washington captured her character, as well as every other in this production, to tell the tales of those who live in the despair of hard work, hard drinking and poverty.
The problems come with Julie Fickley's Mrs. Lovett, who is responsible for almost one-third of the story, and the ensemble, which moves the story along. Perhaps it is her effort to affect a Cockney accent, but, whatever it is, Ms. Fickley's Mrs. Lovett sounds as though her mouth is full of cotton, making her spoken and sung words essentially unintelligible. This is also a problem with the ensemble, which needs to take a collective deep breath and really sing out those crucial bridges between the scenes and the maniacal City on Fire.
That said, greatest kudos to set designer Lynda Dilts-Benson and the sizable construction crew led by John Napolitano, who put together a set worthy of a Equity-level theater. Kudos also to the stage crew, who wheeled the set pieces around and about unobtrusively and to stage manager Linda Clapsis, who made sure it all worked.
And highest praise goes to director Barbara Everest, who tackled this dark, formidable and challenging show to bring area audiences something completely out of the ordinary. Flaws and all, it's a shining achievement for Everest and her cast and crew.