BWW Review: SWEENEY TODD, Starring Lea Salonga & Jett Pangan, Is One Palatable Creative Mischief
Sweeney Todd is a directorial triumph. Obviously, [Bobby] Garcia has full control of all the elements of the production. It's one cohesive endeavor that proves whimsicality combined with creative intelligence could be what memorable theater is.
Manila, Philippines - There are the good musicals, and there are the better ones. Then there are those that push the game a notch higher: they are the memorable ones that linger in your memory, and lips, for a longer time. And they need not be wholesome.
The Bobby Garcia-directed thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, currently making a killing at The Theatre at Solaire, has Garcia's creative mischief written all over it. It's fresh, brave, innovative, and well-thought.
In this 2019 Manila staging of the Stephen Sondheim classic, Garcia breaks away from his Atlantis Theatrical brand of musicals that mostly pay archival homage to their Broadway roots. Instead of merely restaging this 40-year-old classic, Garcia reinvents and updates the musical, and the result is nothing short of genius. His latest offering catapults himself to visionary director status, I dare say.
But what's in supervillains that fascinates many of us? Is it Carl Jung's "little dark nature" of ours that we need to confront, for us to grow and mature as human beings?
Hugh Wheeler's book mirrors Jung's "little dark nature" premise and turns Sweeney Todd into a social commentary. The musical is a personification of society's injustice, and the peeping hole into our very own deep-seated hunger for revenge of any sort, admitted or not.
Sweeney Todd is the tale of Benjamin Barker, a naive London barber, who was sent to Australia for a trumped-up crime. Unknown to him, the perpetrator, the evil Judge Turpin, had set his lustful eyes on his beautiful wife. Barker out of his way, Turpin then lured the helpless woman and raped her. The barber's poor wife became mad. Fifteen years after, Barker returns to London with a new identity, this time in the slick barber Sweeney Todd, whose elegant façade harbors a madman consumed by a monstrous desire to avenge the injustice and terrible fate he and his family suffered in the hands of the judge.
With the global popularity of the Joaquin Phoenix's supervillain movie Joker, Garcia's timing could not be less than impeccable.
Sondheim's score may be four decades old, but its timelessness could be attributed to its ingenious lyrics and complex music. Complex as they are, each song bears every character's DNA, and it's impossible to shake them and their characters off your head after.
Some of the score's indelible masterpieces are "No Place Like London," "The Barber and His Wife," "Poor Thing," "Johanna," "Pretty Women," "A Little Priest," and "Not While I'm Around."
The cast is undoubtedly one of the most exciting ever assembled on local stage. Led by Broadway and West End goddess Lea Salonga (Mrs. Lovett) and rock music demi-god Jett Pangan (Barker/Todd), the Atlantis Theatrical musical is one solid marquee fireworks. Throw in Nyoy Volante (Adolfo Pirelli), Andrew Fernando (Turpin), Ima Castro (Beggar Woman), Gerald Santos (Anthony), Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante (Johanna Barker), Luigi Quesada (Tobias Ragg), and Arman Ferrer (Beadle Bamford) as accomplices, the production's success is almost instantaneous. Under Garcia's direction, these stars' artistic outputs are a masterclass in cohesion and near-perfection.
Jett Pangan is one privileged sanamagan to have been handpicked by Garcia for the coveted titular role. Well, it's obvious why: Pangan has that quiet power - he knows how to disguise his creative weapons and knows exactly when to wield them. His voice is controlled, yet menacing. In the closing scene of Act 1 ("Epiphany, "A" Little Priest)", he exchanges kindred demented spirits with Salonga - his a chilling quiet contrast to Salonga's frenetic evil intents. In Act 2, Pangan transmogrifies into the monster that we all know he's going to be, but he gives us more than terror - he exposes the endogenous anatomy of his character's madness, and it's almost impossible not to empathize and sympathize with his Barker.
Undoubtedly, Lea Salonga's take on the iconic role of Mrs. Lovett wouldn't be spared from any Helena Bonham Carter reference. Yes, hers has that same Victorian Cockney squawk, but all other insinuations at comparison must die there. Make no mistake - Salonga's Lovett is multi-layered, more human, and beautifully sung. Not only does she exhibit vocal dexterity in the role (she has swept that notorious sweet voice under the rug), but she, just like Garcia, has also confronted her creative comfort zone. Lovett is Salonga's perfect vehicle to break away from her sweet and tragic roles, and who cares if she kills people for meat pies? Forget Kim, Fantine, Eponine, and Erzulie, Salonga has finally arrived.
And then there's Nyoy Volante whose Pirelli is the perfect antidote to all the dark air that permeates the musical. Here, Volante is one comedic dynamo - he had us all in stitches, from his innuendos, accent, skirt, and down to his, uhm, stockings. You'll love every single minute of his Pirelli.
Fresh from his stint in the UK production of Miss Saigon where he played Thuy, pop star Gerald Santos is the perfect choice for Anthony. His portrayal exudes the confidence of a thespian honed and ripened on the world stage, and fully uses that sweet voice to advance his role. This performance surely has earned Santos his rightful place in the local theater.
Another Miss Saigon alum who wows the audience with her unrelenting presence is Ima Castro, who plays the tragic Beggar Woman. Hers is one solid portrayal - that voice and that fierceness will surely haunt you for days.
Perhaps one of the biggest revelations of Sweeney Todd is Luigi Quesada whose portrayal of Tobias Ragg is one that demands equal attention as those afforded the bigger stars.
Kudos to the rest of the cast and ensemble (Dean Rosen, Steven Conde, Kevin Guiman, Jep Go, Christine Flores, Sarah Facuri, and Emeline Celis Guinid), who contribute immensely to the musical's success.
A Creative Triumph
Sweeney Todd is a directorial triumph. Obviously, Garcia has full control of all the elements of the production. It's one cohesive endeavor that proves whimsicality combined with creative intelligence could be what memorable theater is.
Gerard Salonga (musical director, conductor, and Lea's bro) and his 11-piece ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra are simply delightful. Salonga personifies perfection, and his contribution to the success of the musical cannot be ignored. His genius allows the musical to progress with no hitch, making it a spectacular aural and visual experience.
Part of Sweeney Todd's success can be attributed to the harmonious relationship among its sets, lighting, sound design, and staging. Broadway import David Gallo's set design actualizes that almost impossible function-first-before-form dictum in installed art. His sets conjure up a terrifying and awe-inspiring vibe, but their functionality serves another noble purpose: to allow Cecile Martinez's musical staging to happen smoothly. Nope, there are no dances here, but Martinez's movements are as delectable as masterfully choreographed dance sequences.
Two other contributing Broadway imports are Aaron Porter (Lighting Design) and Justin Stasiw (Sound Design). Porter's lighting complements the sets, while Stasiw's sound design makes silence almost criminal.
Rajo Laurel (Costume Design), who's known for his elegant and fearless creations, allowed himself to be towed by Garcia's sharp vision. His creations here demand attention for their subtlety. On the other hand, ManMan Angsico's vocal direction is another cause for celebration - those musical numbers are beautifully sung, with nary a voice standing out or upstaging another. Watch for musical numbers "Johanna (Quartet)," "City on Fire/Searching," and the finale with the full company.
The Verdict: Sweeney Todd is a piece of Manila theater truly worth celebrating. It would be a crime not to see it.
The production moves to Singapore from 28 November-8 December 2019.
Photos: Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group