BWW Reviews: SWEENEY TODD Cooks Up Some Fine Singing at Theatre Harrisburg
The character of Sweeney Todd, the murderous "demon barber", is an old one, found in Victorian English "penny dreadfuls" and before that in children's ghost stories and legends. He's been turned into the star of a 1936 movie, as well as into one of Stephen Sondheim's most popular musicals (with book by Hugh Wheeler), SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, which won a massive number of awards for its original somewhat short-lived Broadway run (including for the always-wonderful Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, the ethically challenged but resourceful pie baker). Although Broadway audiences in 1979 found it grisly at best, it's been revived twice on Broadway, as well as in London, and it's had major American and English regional revivals as well, as well as concert productions both by musical theatres and opera companies. It's not Sondheim's most beautiful show, but it has some of his most beautiful songs and melodies.
It's currently on stage in a stylish-looking production at the Whitaker Center by Theatre Harrisburg, where it also boasts one of the largest community theatre orchestra pits in some time, with music director Richard Fowler in charge of handling the lushly melodic performance.
Although the opening night had some technical difficulties, they were for the most part overcome by the second performance, allowing the audience to enjoy fully the grime, gore, and mayhem of industrial-era London at its worst. Yes, enjoy it, because the show is tuneful, delightfully comic, and here is beautifully presented in sets and costuming, as well as well-acted. That it's also full of poverty, prostitution, legal corruption, murder, and cannibalism? Oh, just ignore the details and pay attention to the big picture.
Sweeney Todd, the barber sent to Australia on trumped-up charges by a corrupt and still-practicing judge, is sung by Anthony Leukus. Leukus has the perfect voice and build for Sweeney, as well as the looks, although a bearded Sweeney is an unusual thing indeed - barbers at the time usually advertised their tonsorial skills upon themselves as walking advertisements for their work. From his first notes in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" through "A Little Priest" and Sweeney's final scene with a collection of his bodies, Leukus properly owns the show.
Rebecca Mease's Mrs. Lovett, the pie baker and Sweeney's landlady (and would-be love interest) is delightful, especially in "A Little Priest" and her big number, "By the Sea." Johanna, Sweeney's daughter who is raised by the corrupt Judge Turpin, is sung wonderfully by Elizabeth Colpo, whose voice is as birdlike as the "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" about whom she sings. It's not a huge part, but it's an important one, and Colpo's as good a Johanna as this reviewer has heard sing. Andrew Vinton plays Anthony Hope, the sailor who rescued "Benjamin Barker" at sea and who falls in love with Sweeney's daughter Johanna, who plots with Sweeney to rescue her from the judge.
The villainy is provided by the fiendish Judge Turpin and his henchman, the weaselly Beadle, played respectively by David Zayas and Anthony Barber. It's a pleasure to see Zayas in this; he's usually over at Gamut Theatre Group, and not in musicals, but he's got a better than serviceable baritone, and he's as fine an actor as Leukus, so it's a treat to see them circling each other on the Theatre Harrisburg stage as Sweeney plots his revenge on the man who took his wife and daughter and sent him to Australia. Barber's Beadle is the slimy henchman you love to hate, deferential to a fault to anyone in authority, smarmy, and possessing a manner suggesting that if he had a moustache he would twirl its ends in front of your face. Were his Beadle any more oily, he could fry Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.
Bryce Evans plays the young Tobias Ragg. A sophomore at Central Dauphin East High School and active in school theatre, he shows promise. He manages to convey Tobias' complexity as well as his confusion, and his breakdown at the end is nicely handled. It would be nice to see him with Theatre Harrisburg again. Colin York is competent in his portrayal of the pseudo-Italian barber Pirelli, and his song during the shaving contest is handled amusingly; it's one of the best comic scenes in a show surprisingly full of them.
Tom Hostetter's direction keeps the show well-paced; it's possible for SWEENEY TODD to feel long when not handled properly. Paul Foltz has done yeomen's work assembling an amazing assortment of costumes to keep a large crowd of mid-Victorian Londoners from rich to ragged properly dressed, and Nels Martin's set is nicely designed and visually attractive.
With the technical bugs fixed now, the show is well worth seeing and may be one of Theatre Harrisburg's better musicals in some time. The music and the singing are the point of this show, and they're both worth catching. For those who are squeamish, this is not really a gory show. There's a decided lack of blood on stage, and no displaying of the making of Mrs. Lovett's suddenly chock-full-of-meat pies that she's producing during the citywide meat shortage. SWEENEY TODD actually sounds far gorier than it is.
It does have some very rough language, though, both in dialogue and in songs, as well as a beggar woman, nicely played by Diane Bateman, who offers her services as a prostitute in blunt Victorian epithet, so be prepared to caution children to avoid using all the interesting words and phrases they'll hear on stage. (It's such a fine Sondheim show that it's a shame not to take children to see it; they will love the gross-sounding plot when you tell them about it, and they won't see enough of anything awful to give them nightmares. This reviewer, a fan of old horror movies, adored SWEENEY TODD as a teen, and still does.)
At Theatre Harrisburg through May 11, at the Whitaker Center. Yes, the new parking fees are unfortunately absurdly high. Call the Whitaker Center for tickets at 717-214-ARTS, or visit Theatre Harrisburg at www.theatreharrisburg.com for information.