BWW Review: SWEENEY TODD Rages Into REP Stage's Horowitz Theater at HCC
Sweeney Todd the character is an angry, vengeful, violent man. SWEENEY TODD the opera is a furious, explosive, violent show. Mating Stephen Sondheim's immensely popular SWEENEY TODD (Book by Hugh Wheeler) with early eighties angry punk rock aesthetic seems only logical. REP delivers a punk treatment of Sweeney Todd that is astoundingly compact, hideously dynamic and impressively submersive.
If you've never been to Howard Community College's Horowitz Center, pay attention: the Studio Theatre is tucked away, set back from the Campus Drive so you can't see it, nor a sign- there is one, but it's very easy to miss from the car. My navigation function is fairly useless on campus. The HCC website is helpful. https://www.howardcc.edu/discover/arts-culture/horowitz-center/plan-your-visit/maps-directions.html
Park in the West Garage and walk down a landscaped path to the Horowitz Center into the Great Hall.
The seating is steeply raked, and those with mobility concerns would be wise to mention them when purchasing tickets, and arriving earlier than the recommended 15 minutes before curtain.
The Studio Theatre is where REP performs all of its shows, and I am a bit concerned whether a show of SWEENEY TODD's scale can fit into a small black box. It almost doesn't. Associate Set Designer Mollie Singer creates a versatile, vertically integrated playing space, full of grunge and London-isms. The set is efficiently arranged with a catwalk, staircases, street team leaflets, corrugated aluminum panels, plywood and neon. It provides levels for performance very compactly, and the more-than-ample and better-than-adequate lighting array effectively delineates "places." Particularly clever is how the upstairs barber shop is handled. The barber pole itself could use some lubrication, as it makes a distracting sound during quiet stage moments.
The Company is a nice mix of Equity and Equity-eligible performers, all with powerful, accurate and occasionally astounding vocal prowess. Every one of them is physically precise, flexible and compelling. Director Joseph Ritsch has confidence in his cast's ability to manage multiple roles, so they form the Ensemble as well as each playing a featured role. As title character Sweeney Todd, V. Savoy McIlwain is bombastic and enraged. Jade Jones plays Mrs. Lovett with a wry matter-of-fact self-interest, and her comic timing is stellar.
REP veteran Nigel Reed is frightening in his facile progression from desire to shame to rationalization to domination. Benjamin Lurye, playing the jackbooted Beadle, is properly thuggish, but brings some deft comedy to bear towards the end of Act I and in the middle of Act II. Young John Taos Foster as abandoned apprentice Tobias Ragg carries a confident air many seasoned performers could envy. Justine Icy Moral is wonderful to behold in each of her roles; you can play a little game of trying to spot her. Suzanne Lane and Noah Israel as the young romantic leads Johanna and Anthony have sweet, powerfully melodic voices and great chemistry. This doesn't mitigate, however, the dynamic of him treating her as an object to be burgled from her household, and demanding sexual favors before telling her his name.
In fact, SWEENEY TODD rivals even PHANTOM OF THE OPERA for embedded misogyny, but in a much more self-aware, socially satiric way, and makes salient points about who are the most fragile and disenfranchised people of a community. Also, Sondheim's lyrics are better.
Director/choreographer Joseph Ritsch's technically intricate blocking make "God That's Good" a fabulous opening for Act II, there is almost some actual tenderness in "Not While I'm Around" despite Jade Jones' physicalization of Mrs. Lovett's conflicted intent towards poor Toby (John Taos Foster), and enjoy the subtle comedy when Jones performs a' deux with the Beadle (Benjamin Lurye) in "Parlor Songs."
Smog effects, fog effects and extravagant lighting provide technical support to the squalor of the musical: the gore is really not at all what is most horrible in the context of the story. Lighting Designer Conor Mulligan gives a murky ominous atmosphere, and plenty of drama during action sequences. Dramatic music and a variety of sound effects compliment the lighting, and Musical Director Stacey Antoine, (also playing Reeds), with Ben Shaver on Piano and Raphael Erfe on Violin, delivers wonderful accompaniment that is evocative on its own, and never overpowers the vocals. Spot-on timing of sound cues earn Sound Designer Mark Smedley high praise.
Intermission offerings of soda, coffee and snacks are to be consumed outside the theater, so be mindful of choosing something you're able to finish in the allotted time.
I advise you against reading the Director's Notes prior to the performance to avoid watching the musical with preconceptions of his vision. Director Joseph Ritsch does a better job directing than writing about directing. I do like his angle, and appreciate the touches of humor he inserts to relieve us from the truly dismal underlying theme, which, as he suggests, is equally possible nowadays, anywhere, as in Victorian or New Wave London.
Running time is about 3 hours, with a 15 or 20 minute intermission.
SWEENEY TODD plays at Rep Stage through September 23rd.
For tickets call the box office at 443-518-1500, or go online:
Photo Credit: REP Stage; John Taos Foster as Tobias Ragg