BWW Review: SWEENEY TODD at Olney Theatre Center - It's Just Plain Delicious!
The greatest living Broadway musical composer, Stephen Sondheim, was in London in 1973 and saw a revamped version of a 19th century play adapted by Christopher Bond called SWEENEY TODD - THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET and knew immediately this unusual tale should become a musical. According to the wonderful treatise "Finishing the Hat" written by the composer, "...it immediately struck me as material for a musical horror story, one which not be sung through but which would be held together by ceaseless underscoring that would keep an audience in suspense and maybe even scare the hell out of them." Mission accomplished.
Thank you Olney Theatre Artistic Director Jason Loewith who has assembled a magnificent cast and theater artists and he directs this masterpiece with panache. To succeed, he needed top notch actors to play the leads, Sweeney and his old friend Mrs. Lovett. E. Faye Butler nails the complex role of the owner of a meat pie shop in London, Lovett, in the role of lifetime. She imbues her character with pathos, humor, and love for the "demon" barber. She explains the background of the musical in "The Barber and His Wife" which introduces the audience to what happened to Todd 15 years ago.
Playing Todd is the brilliant Broadway performer David Benoit who got a three month leave of absence from the national tour of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to play a role he has longed to play. He is larger than life. His booming voice could shatter glass.
The show opens as he leaves a ship which has arrived in London. He was saved by a young sailor, Anthony (the impressive Jobari Parker-Namdar) who plucked him out of the ocean after finding Todd on a raft off the coast of Australia where he was serving a life sentence imposed by the mean Judge Turpin (strong-voiced Thomas Adrian Simpson) who had fallen in love with Todd's wife. Todd arrives in London with one thing on his mind...revenge for his illegal sentence for life by Turpin and to hopefully reunite with his wife and daughter, Joanna.
Lovett recognizes Todd when he returned to her pie shop since his former barbershop was located upstairs from her. Thankfully, she saved his razors so he could go back to work as a barber and hopefully convince Judge Turpin to use his services and Todd could get his revenge.
That's the story in a nutshell. Other main characters are an ItalIan Barber Pirelli (the comedic Frank Viveros), his side-kick Toby (the superb Michael J. Mainwaring) who will later help Lovett with her meat pies, Judge Turpin's assistant Beadle Bamford (played by the fabulous Rachel Zampelli so impressive in the leading role of "Evita" at Olney in an interesting bit of casting), Joanna (the lovely and talented Gracie Jones), and a Beggar Women (the superb Patricia Hurley fresh off her leading role in Olney's MARY POPPINS).
Adding to this spectacular cast is a quality ensemble with amazing voices: Kenneth Derby, Jade Jones, Benjamin Lurye, Quynh-My Luu, Alan Naylor, Adam Strube, Janine Sunday, Joseph Torello, Melissa Victor, and Laura Whittenberger. It would not have been appropriate not to mention each of these great performers.
Someday it will not be necessary to talk about how diverse a cast is but it should be applauded here. I have seen numerous productions of SWEENEY but never did they have such diversity!
The evening is greatly enhanced by the great nine musicians under the baton of Doug Lawler who somehow manages to make the pit sound gorgeous and huge. Music Director and Olney Associate Artistic Director Christopher Youstra has done yeoman's work with the additional orchestrations.
To make this production the hit it is, one has to say kudos to Seth Gilbert's costumes, Milagros Ponce De Leon's for her impressive set, Colin K. Bill's excellent lighting, and Zachary G. Borovay for his Projection Design.
Sondheim has often been criticized for not writing melodies. This work proves that totally wrong. There is a plethora of great music, memorable music which I often hum every day. There are many classics but the highlights for me are "Not While I'm Around" and "Pretty Women".
Dramaturg Emily Sorensen adds to the enjoyment with her work in the program. Check out the informative blog at www.otc-dramaturgy-tumblr.com to learn more about the show and the cast.
Sondheim in his book states the first line of an opening number is crucial to an audience's acceptance of everything which follows. Here it is "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd". He submits that the term "attend" means one must listen and "tale" suggests a fable...which it surely is.
He also points out how pleased he is to have three songs named "Johanna" with three different melodies.
He also adds that SWEENEY was not a commercial success in either New York or London but it turned out to be one of his four most popular shows along with WEST SIDE STORY, FORUM, and INTO THE WOODS. He adds, that these four shows demonstrate that "...if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they'll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre and idiosyncratic it may be." How right he is.
Olney has for sale an entertaining CD by E. Faye Butler for $20.
Next up at Olney is FICKLE, A FANCY FRENCH FARCE adapted by Meg Miroshnik based on Marivaux's THE DOUBLE INCONSTANCY which runs March 1 to March 26.
SWEENEY TODD runs until March 5, 2017. Tickets are available by calling 301-924-3400 or visiting www.olneytheatre.org. This is a must see production.
THIS AND THAT
Here is another reminder that Disney's NEWSIES, THE BROADWAY MUSICAL is coming to a movie theater near you on February 16, 18, and 22, 2017. You can buy tickets are www.fathomevents.com. I highly recommend this entertaining event. It is a great vehicle to introduce young people to the experience of musical theater without paying the high prices of Broadway.