BWW Review: Director McDonald Raises the Bar With CCP's Remarkable SWEENEY TODD

BWW Review: Director McDonald Raises the Bar With CCP's Remarkable SWEENEY TODD

Fog comes billowing out over the footlights, bringing with it a pervasive sense of foreboding that sets the tone for the next three hours of what is - without any fear of exaggeration - the most satisfying theatrical experience of 2018. Eye-poppingly gorgeous, with a design aesthetic that's perfectly wedded to the source material provided by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler, and featuring some of the most electrifying performances we've ever witnessed at Cumberland County Playhouse (where they know a thing or 100 about staging musicals), Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is spectacular.

The latest production from the venerable institution is a remarkable feat, with producing director Bryce McDonald yet again raising the bar for theater all over the Volunteer State from the stage that has gained - over the past 50-plus years - a national reputation for being the best place between the coasts to find musical theater of a superior sort. To put it succinctly, Cumberland County Playhouse's Sweeney Todd should not be missed.

McDonald's direction is richly drawn, his interpretation of the critically lauded musical making it seem somehow new and original. His confident direction ensures that each character is given his or her due, yet he keeps his leading players squarely at the center of the onstage action that begins the very moment that auditorium lights go dark and the stage lights illuminate the playing space with golden tones of nostalgia and memory gone awry in order to strike fear into every heart assembled.

Unfortunately, only two performances remain (a 1 o'clock matinee on Tuesday, with the show's finale on Friday, October 26, with a 7:30 p.m. curtain) and we fully accept the blame for not getting to Crossville sooner so that we could regale you with the story of what we witnessed there: Jason Ross and Weslie Webster, both actors who have come to personify CCP (what with their years-long resumes of bringing art to the Plateau), who give career-defining performances that demand recognition; a steam punk aesthetic realized in every possible way, thanks to the stunning work of designers Andy Wallach (costumes), Jeremiah Stuart (lighting), Tom Tutino (set) and Matt Bundy (sound - yes, we're calling out a sound designer for doing an exceptional job, perhaps for the very first time); and the fluid direction that results in a compelling Sweeney Todd for the ages from McDonald himself.

Cumberland County Playhouse's Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is almost indefinably good, leaving audiences riveted to their seats lest they miss one intriguing detail in this impressively mounted production that shows off the hard work of every member of its cast and crew. So inspiring is CCP's Sweeney that it could fuel your own creative urges for months, perhaps even years, to come.

Call out of work on Tuesday if you have to, or duck out early Friday afternoon to arrive on-time for curtain: Cumberland County Playhouse's Sweeney Todd is a revelation.

That it is described thusly should come as no surprise. CCP always manages to give every title it chooses a refreshingly new and reconfigured production certain to make people - particularly the theaterati - talk. With Sweeney Todd, McDonald continues to introduce the unexpected to CCP audiences, encouraging them to look further afield for their onstage diversions, beyond the tried and true, and to become familiar with laudable works for the stage they may have been reluctant to consider. McDonald's artistic vision for Cumberland County Playhouse isn't necessarily revolutionary, but it is definitely forward-thinking, and that's something that will keep the theater's seats filled and its artistic staff nourished for seasons to come.

Sweeney Todd is the tale of a man wrongfully sentenced to prison in the penal colony of Australia who returns to London to exact his revenge on those he blames for the loss of his wife and daughter - for his very life, to put a very fine point on it - in order that he might be made whole again. Along the way, he meets Nellie Lovett, the maker of the worst meat pies in London, whose proximity to his former home (her shop occupies the first floor of the building in which the former Benjamin Barker plied his trade before the trumped up charges that proved his undoing) makes her the ideal co-conspirator as his lurid tale of obsession and recrimination becomes apparent. As Todd dispatches one customer after another with his razor's blade, Mrs. Lovett's pies take on a more balanced flavor, gaining popularity among the denizens of their depressing London neighborhood.

Based on a story that first appeared in a penny dreadful serial that first appeared in 1846 and which subsequently led to a melodrama written by Christopher Bond in 1973 that inspired Sondheim to create a musical - a wholly different animal unlike anything seen before it - that is at once horrifyingly harsh and somehow beautiful, which features a score (performed to such splendid results at Cumberland County Playhouse by musical director Ron Murphy and his nine-member orchestra that it makes their number seem multiplied three times over) so sublime and engaging that it manages to sound both discordant and mellifluously exquisite at the very same moment. It won both the Tony Award and Olivier Award for best musical after its 1979 debut and it is easy to see why: Sondheim created in Sweeney Todd something that theater audiences had never seen before.

Hugh Wheeler's book for the musical casts its title character in an unyielding light, with all of the truths of his existence presented in stark relief against the overbearing oppressiveness of the Industrial Revolution in mid-19th century London. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Sweeney comes off as rather sympathetic in his way, even as he plots to get the better of those around him whom he blames, justifiably so, for his sordid lot in life. Without question, the tale is lurid - and perhaps beyond belief - but it is as compelling and entertaining as anything you might experience.

Sweeney Todd is so insanely good it's hard to express what actually transpires onstage over the course of three hours which pass like the briefest of moments. Staging Sweeney Todd with a steampunk design aesthetic is not only inspired, but it dutifully pays homage to the work's Industrial Revolution setting. In fact, the design infuses the musical with a palpable and menacing sense of dread that heightens the experience beyond the stagebound.

Andy Wallach's costumes are extraordinary, built with consummate skill to create a sense of time and place that somehow defies description, yet becomes universal even if it is hard to discern its setting. Jeremiah Stuart's lighting design is beautifully evocative, perfectly illuminating the proceedings amid shadows of mystery and intrigue that prove both alluring and off-putting. Tom Tutino's set design creates a world that is desolate and oppressive, yet full of visually wondrous details that prove elucidating and startling - a world in which Sweeney Todd's acts of revenge seem preordained and acceptable despite the terror they induce. Matt Bundy's sound design is, likewise, awe-inspiring, helping to create an aural experience that ensures the production will live on in the memories of all those who see it first-hand and up-close from the relative comfort of their seats in the orchestra.

McDonald's ensemble, charged with bringing the characters to life, is superb - and each role is winningly cast to achieve the greatest impact, both from an emotional and artistic standpoint. Ashley Gentry's choreography keeps the company moving in and out of each scene with purpose.

Jason Ross, cast in the challenging title role, has quite simply never been better: He is forceful and forthright as the beleaguered barber with an axe to grind and a blade to sharpen. Ross commands the stage as if it were built expressly for him to play this role, and he delivers a performance of Sweeney Todd that refuses to be shortchanged or forgotten or simply relegated to a listing on the resume of an actor. Filled with fiery emotions wrought by supreme confidence and an unquestioned sense of who the character is - no matter his fictional genesis or whoever has come before in the role - Ross becomes Sweeney Todd, delivering his songs with a mesmerizing blend of artistic bombast and refined subtlety that is breathtaking, and creating a characterization that is auspicious and remarkable.

Paired with Ross as Sweeney's helpmate Mrs. Lovett, Weslie Webster is transcendent. Her stage presence is startling, matching the firepower supplied by Ross in every scene they share, and which is underscored by years spent working together at CCP - experience which results in a sort of onstage shorthand that allows each to create an indelible impression. Webster is beguilingly deceptive as the world-weary woman who longs for something better, even if it comes as the result of murder and mayhem, leavening Mrs. Lovett's earthiness and self-interest with a flirtatious manner that is quite charming. As a result, when her character's moment of reckoning comes, the audience is left bereft, so willingly have they clasped Mrs. Lovett to their collective breast during the intervening two-and-a-half hours.

As wonderfully performed as the musical's two leading characters are, so too are the supporting characters who populate the world created onstage. As lovestruck Anthony Hope, Blake Graham reaches near-rapturous heights with his portrayal - and if anyone has ever performed the hauntingly romantic "Johanna" better, we must consider that claim a falsehood and there is nothing that can be done to convince us otherwise. Harli Cooper is winsome and lovely as the aforementioned object of Anthony's affections and she is able to create a rendering of the character who is somehow authentic even if she's drawn as something of an archetype in the script. She skillfully sings "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" to introduce herself to her audience - and to Graham's Anthony - and she does so with warmth and confidence.

As the rapacious and dastardly Judge Turpin, Britt Hancock is impressively repellant, fairly dripping with a manipulative unctuousness that makes his character even more off-putting. But his duet with Ross on "Pretty Women" may well be the production's musical highlight and it gives the multi-talented Hancock an opportunity to put his talents on full display to the audience's complete and utter ardor. Lauren Marshall, who plays the beggar woman whose real identity is revealed in the closing moments of act two, shows off her legit soprano to artistic perfection, while also putting her uncanny ability to play a more physical role to great comic effect and dramatic portent on display. Marshall will likely leave you breathless with her resonant performance.

Actors in two supporting, if all-important and essential, roles threaten to steal the entire production out from under the feet of the notable actors already mentioned. Brett Mutter is exceptional as the effete and officious Beadle Bamford, affecting a persona certain to send chills up the spine of anyone within the sound of his voice. Mutter is thoroughly focused and amazingly committed to his characterization and it pays off in spades. Equally as impressive is Ross Griffin as the hapless Tobias Ragg, whose devotion to duty and respect for his elders proves his undoing, manages to play an innocent victim whose total lack of guile makes him easily the most undeserving victim of Sweeney Todd's campaign of terror and revenge. Griffin's duet with Webster on "Not While I'm Around" is but another musical treasures that exemplify the beauty of Sondheim's score.

The remainder of the ensemble show off their own prodigious talents while helping to create the sense of mystery and impending doom that permeates the atmosphere of the show. In fact, Daniel Black, Michael Ruff, Emma Jordan, Cory Clark, Jensen Crain-Foster, Jess Griffin, Chris Hallowes, Carol Irvin, Rachel Lawrence, Natasha Ricketts, Caitlin Schaub, Nick Sterling and Grayson Yockey contribute greatly to the production's overall success.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. From an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed by Bryce McDonald. Musical direction by Ron Murphy. Choreography by Ashley Gentry. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through October 26. For details and tickets, go to or call (931) 484-5000. Running time: 3 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis