SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at Rep Stage - This is SWEENEY like you have never seen it before!!
Let me start by saying I love SWEENEY TODD. It is probably my all-time favorite musical. I cannot recall each version I have seen. But it started in 1979 with the Original Broadway production at the Uris Theatre which starred Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury and Victor Garber. It was nominated for 9 Tony Awards and won 8 including Best Musical. (I even bought the iconic "Sweeney Todd" apron with the fabulous logo on it.) In 2002, there was the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski, in 2005 Patti LuPone played the tuba as Mrs. Lovett (yes the actors all played instruments) along with Michael Cerveris at Studio 54, a production at the Signature Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, and most recently the Olney Theatre Center.
Oh...there was also the 2007 film with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
So, I was curious how Rep Stage's Producing Director Joseph W. Ritsch would handle this masterpiece of a musical which always seemed to feature a huge cast and orchestra. Ritsch took it upon himself to Direct, Choreograph, and Set Design... move the musical from Victorian London to modern day East London, and do so with an ensemble of eight actors. Oh...all with a three-piece orchestra. And this is especially difficult since 80% of the show is set to music either sung or orchestrated underneath the dialogue (by master Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.) Yes, I was curious how this could be done.
So, what is this all about? There is a barber named "Sweeney Todd" who is married to a beautiful wife "Lucy" and they have a baby daughter "Joanna". There is Judge Turpin who has his eyes on "Lucy", he along with his assistant "The Beadle" puts Todd on trial with trumped up charges, transports him for life to an island jail, keeps "Joanna" as his ward and later decides to wed her. "Todd" escapes his jail and is rescued by a sailor "Anthony" and they arrive in London together with Anthony offering any help to Todd.
Todd after being gone many years visits his old hangout as a barber and revisits his friend "Mrs. Lovett" who runs a bake shop that has a hard time finding "meat" for her meat pies. Lovett recognizes Todd from the olden days and has kept his unique razor for his return. Todd then reopens his "tonsorial" parlor to shave locals with hopes of getting his revenge to Judge Turpin especially after he finds out his Joanna is a ward of the Judge.
Anthony notices Joanna and falls in love with her but Judge Turpin hides her in an asylum.
After Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) is recognized by an Italian barber named Pirelli (who tries to blackmail Todd), Todd has no choice to but to remedy the situation with his fancy razor to Pirelli's neck.
Pirelli's assistant Toby unsure where his boss has gone, becomes a friend of Mrs. Lovett and helps making meat pies.
After Mrs. Lovett thinks it would be an "awful waste" to bury Pirelli, she suggests that she could use him for her meat pies...hence the hysterical number "A Little Priest".
Following her "new" recipe, the pie shop becomes a huge success. Todd then "provides" the meat by using his barber skills to people's necks and he agonizes about getting his revenge from Judge Turpin.
When Todd is told by Anthony where Joanna is, he plots to have Anthony rescue her.
OK...the story sounds strange. But it is a "fable" according to composer Sondheim. In fact, the opening number states: "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd". According to Sondheim's compendium "Finishing the Hat", "the use of "attend means "to listen to" and the idea of a tale suggests the audience not to take the story realistically but as a fable..."
As one enters the Rep Stage Theater one sees a huge space with balconies on three sides (probably used for lighting for other plays) with two sets of steps leading to the floor. There is a clever sign that says "Turpin, Make London Great Again". There are signs for Fogg's Asylum, an authentic barber pole with the red and blue strips, a neon sign that says "Pies" that has bulbs noticeable absent.
In Act II, after the success of Mrs. Lovett's shop, her sign how has all the bulbs working, and the barber pole has been replaced with new graphic design.
So, how does triple threat Ritsch (directing, choreographer, and set designer) pull this off? With an ensemble of superb actors and voices that will give you goose bumps.
For the pivotal role of "Sweeney", Ritsch found an opera singer with skilled acting chops, V. Savoy McIlwain who must possess the anger of a man who had his wife and child taken from him, with revenge on his mind yet still has the comedic ability to sing and dance to "A Little Priest". Director Ritsch utilizes the stairs in the theater to good use and members of the cast often are running into the audience. I got goose bumps when "Sweeney" waiving his razor with a menacing look on his face came right at me. So be prepared.
Jade Jones nails the role of Mrs. Lovett. She has a powerful voice and knows how to handle Sweeney's anger and frustration about his attempt to revenge. Look for her in another Sondheim classic as "Little Red Riding Hood" in INTO THE WOODS at the Ford's Theatre running March 8 to May 22, 2019.
Nigel Reed is a superb Judge Turpin with his deep voice. His duet with "Todd" "Pretty Women" is worth the price of admission.
His sidekick Benjamin Lurye is wonderful as the evil "Beadle".
Suzanne Lane is "Joanna" and has the voice of an angel. It is powerful and angelic at the same time.
Noah Israel is "Anthony" and I'll always remember his ballad "Joanna".
John Taos Foster is only a senior in high school and has a great future ahead of him. He nails the role of "Toby" and he gives a moving rendition of "Not While I'm Around."
Finally, there's Justine Icy Moral who has three roles portraying "The Beggar Woman", "Pirelli", and "Jonas Fogg". Like many in the cast, this is her Rep Stage debut and I'm sure she will be back.
Stacey Antoine does a masterly job as Music Director as well as playing reeds. Raphael Erfe but special kudos to Ben Shaver on the piano.
Sarah Cubbage is the Costume Designer. I loved the Union Jack coat of red, white, and blue for Judge Turpin.
Conor Mulligan is the Lighting Designer. He uses red lights to reflect the blood of Sweeney's work in the barber chair to great effect.
Mark Smedley is the Sound Designer. One never misses a lyric.
Director Ritsch has pulled off a miracle with his terrific directing, clever set design, and delightful choreography. And what a cast he has assembled!!
If you have never seen SWEENY TODD, do not miss this opportunity and see this exquisite production. If you have seen it, you have never SWEENEY like this!!! The show lasts three hours but I never looked at my watch.
There is a free Pre-Show Lecture on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. at the Monteabaro Recital Hall.
There is a Post Show discussion after the Sept. 21 8 p.m. show.
Next up at Rep Stage is THINGS that are ROUND by Callie Kimball running Nov. 1 to Nov. 18.
SWEENEY TODD runs until September 23, 2018. For tickets, call 443-518-1500 or visit www.repstage.org.
THIS AND THAT
Could the musical TITANIC return to Broadway? Yes!! The Signature Theatre production directed by Eric Schaeffer may be setting up on Broadway. More later. PASSION runs until Sept. 23.
Shakespeare Theatre Company has a FREE OPEN REHEARSAL for its COMEDY OF ERRORS on September 16, 2018 at the Lanburgh Theatre. The play opens September 25. Reservations are strongly encouraged.
Toby's Dinner Theatre has the musical AIN'T MISBEHAVEN running Sept. 14 to Nov. 4, 2018.
Everyman Theatre has opened their season with DANCING WITH LUGHNASA which runs until October 7.
Congratulations Everyman for having a feature story in this month's American Theatre Magazine about their hit production THE BOOK OF JOSEPH which broke all of their box office records.
Baltimore Center Stage has CAT ON THE HOT TIN ROOF until October 14.
IF I FORGET is at the Studio Theatre in DC runs until October 14.
BORN YESTERDAY opens at Ford's Theatre Sept. 21 and runs until October 21, 2018.
Olney Theatre Company has SOUTH PACIFIC. Make note of their three noteworthy one night only concerts: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (October 12, 2018), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (March 15, 2019) and CHILDREN OF EDEN (July 26, 2019).
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is at Round House Theatre from August 29 to September 23, 2018.
The Kennedy Center continues with HAMILTON (until September 16).
PBS has announced its fall 2018 GREAT PERFORAMNCES line-up which will commence on Friday, November 2 and continue November 9, 16, and 23 from 9 to 11 p.m. Look for the Tony Award-winning production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, a live production recorded in the UK of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE, John Leguizamo's latest theatrical showcase "John Leguizamo's Road to Broadway", and "Harold Prince - A Director's Journey, a retrospective look at the 60-year career of this Tony Award-winning producer and director.