BWW Review: SWEENEY TODD, Sondheim at His Most Complicated, Comes to Blank Canvas
Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which is now in production at Blank Canvas, is noted as a brilliant lyricist. Interestingly, that is not the way he sees himself. He is well-trained as a musical composer, having, from a young age, been the prodigy of Oscar Hammerstein II. Yes, the composer of such mega hits as "Oklahoma," "South Pacific" and "Sound of Music."
Sondheim was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy." He quickly gained a reputation for writing pure rhymes, clever twists on phrases, and character-describing songs that fit perfectly into the plot.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," or, as it is better known, "Sweeney Todd" was written in 1979. Known as a musical thriller, is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond and won the Tony Award for Best Musical Play.
The score, probably one of Sondheim's most complex, is filled with intriguing harmonies and counterpoint. Because most of the dialogue, about eighty percent, is sung, many consider the piece as an opera. "Never before or since in his work has Sondheim utilized music in such an exhaustive capacity to further the purposes of the drama."
The brilliant list of musical numbers includes the beautiful "Johanna," the delightful "The Worst Pies in London" and the heart wrenching "Not While I'm Around."
The story, centering on obsession, tells the tale of Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker), who was exiled to Australia by Judge Turpin, a ruthless judge who lusted after Todd's wife.
It is now 1846, many years after the now renamed Sweeney Todd's exile.
We meet young Anthony Hope and Todd on a London pier. Todd has recently rescued Hope at sea and befriended him. The duo is confronted by a crazed Beggar Woman. Todd wanders into a meat shop, below his former barber shop, hoping to find out the whereabouts of his wife and daughter.
Mrs. Lovett, noted as the maker of the worst pies in London, tells about the "death" of his former wife. She relates that Judge Turpin, who also has taken their daughter, Joanna, as his ward, raped Todd's wife. Todd threatens revenge against Turpin and his henchman, Beadle Bamford. Thus, the plot is laid for a tale of murder and revenge.
Blank Canvas never ceases to amaze. Performing on a postage-size stage, tucked away on the 2 nd floor of the former American Greeting Card warehouse, operating on a shoe-string budget, Artistic Director Patrick Ciamacco and his merry band of performers draw in sold out houses producing off-beat musicals (e.g., "The Wild Party," "Silence," "Triassic Parq" and "Reefer Madness "), folded into such classics as "Our Town" and "Of Mice and Men." The theatre often garners Cleveland Critics Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland awards for excellence.
"Sweeney Todd" is yet another one of those winners.
Director Jonathan Kronenberger has used every inch of space to keep the well-paced and intense drama moving along to its blood-drenched conclusion.
Patrick Ciamacco's scene design works well to enhance the action. The vocal sounds and music, under the guidance of Matthew Dolan, are well conceived.
Ciamacco, with his strong singing voice and well-textured acting, makes Todd both grief-driven and revengeful. "Pretty Woman," a duet with Brian Altman (Turpin) was nicely sung.
Though he lacks the macho leading man presence, Robert Kowalewski is appealing as Anthony Hope. His rendition of "Johanna" is masterful.
Trinidad Snider delights as Mrs. Lovett. Her "Not While I'm Around," sung with Devin Pfeiffer (Tobias), is emotionally draining, while "A Little Priest" is laugh-inducing.
Lovely Meg Martiniez (Johanna) has a fine singing voice. The rest of the cast is excellent.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "Sweeney Todd" gets a strong and meaningful performance and should please even the most critical of Sondheim aficionados.
"Sweeney Todd" runs through March 10, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland. For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/