BWW Reviews SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, at Portland Center Stage: a Bloody Killer of a show!

BWW Reviews SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, at Portland Center Stage: a Bloody Killer of a show!

            Well, folks, we’re barely into the new season here in Portland, but already we’ve got a title-fight contender.  SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET just premiered with Portland Center Stage and it’s…well it’s a bloody mess.  But in the good way!  Where people die and then get eaten and everyone sings songs about it.  It’s a bloody mess in the good way. 

            Here’s what I like about going to a Portland Center Stage show: the talent is incredible.  When PCS puts on a musical, the singing talent eclipses a lot of the other companies in Portland.  Portland theater does great musicals no matter where you go in the city, don’t get me wrong, but whereas most of the actors in other companies will just have some undergraduate training in ‘musical theater’, the actors who come to Portland Center Stage tend to also be trained up in ‘voice’ as well as having received classical music training.  You can see it on stage as well as in the program.  Now, is this talent local?  Usually not.  Which feels a bit odd when you’re looking at it from the outside, but when you’re in the thick of the show and the house is packed then you tend not to mind.  You’re in Portland, it’s a Portland company, and drafting a super-team isn’t cheating in theater.

            The lead of Sweeney Todd is played by Aloysius Gigl, whose strength lies not just in his voice (which was commanding and pure), but in his stature.  Gigl is an imposing figure, or at least he looks to be, with a hulking frame and rather intense forearms for a barber.  I mention this not for swooning purposes but because casting like this changes the reading of the play.  In our library of villains and anti-heroes, the larger muscle men aren’t normally the cunning masterminds, and so purely from our cultural context we would read this Todd more as a violent opportunist, slightly brutish, who tags along to Mrs. Lovett’s scheme because the idea presented itself.  Oppose this with a Johnny Depp figure in Tim Burton’s film-attempt at this musical where Todd, being lankier and less physically imposing, would be read as an anti-hero who plots and plans his revenge and patiently waits for the right moment because there’s no way he could overpower anyone.  It changes things, is all.

            Some other singers of note were Gretchen Rumbaugh (Mrs. Lovett) and Eric Little (Tobias Ragg) as a pair, then Louis Hobson (Anthony Hope) and Rita Markova (Johanna) as a pair.  Rumbaugh and Little were quite charming because they had to balance both an assumed cockney accent as well as making sure their vocals didn’t sound TOO refined, as their characters were spawned from the unrefined streets of London.  Very occasionally you could see the seams start to show but for the majority it was bravely convincing and added some vocal dynamic to the character cast.

            The second pair, Hobson and Markova, sang well together, and I mention this because the duets occasionally fell down for the other cast members (we’ll get to that in a moment).  Perhaps it was the arrangements being more straightforward, or the earnestness with which both Hobson and Markova did their acting, but all their songs together felt comfortable and strong.

            Lastly, a tip of the hat to Matthew Alan Smith (Judge Turpin) for ensuring the Judge was a positively revolting character.  One has to be impressed with someone who can be on stage and effectively communicate to a full house, ‘my character really has no redeeming qualities’.  I’ve had to play such a character before, and Smith was much more impressive.

            Right, well we’ve covered casting as a highlight so allow me to touch upon my other favorite thing about this production before we move onto the part where I’m a critic.  Director Chris Coleman did exactly right in his composition of this stage.  SWEENEY TODD is not the play to be blacking out and shifting scenery around, so sticking to one set was a great move.  What he’s done is by very effectively using the horizontal levels (trapdoor, stage floor, raised floor, windows) for staging, as well as occasionally wheeling in and out very deliberate props (the barber chair, the prison bars, the oven), the narrative flows smoothly from one scene into the next.  This is important, because one of the biggest drawbacks of musical theater is that each song tends to feel like it’s own self-contained event and overarching narrative is lost.  Not in this case.  The story feels interwoven like the streets of London.

            The second part of stage composition done so well is the aesthetic in terms of lighting and coloring.  The walls raise up high and are given an industrial color palette, making the stage feel like a prison (and how fitting, as a mental asylum is one of the places we visit on our SWEENEY TODD journey).  The opening number sees Todd standing aloft, the rest of the ensemble circling his raised platform and gazing up at him, this insane legend in the insane prison that is London. 

            But now let’s quickly have out that which didn’t quite stick.  The first issue is one I briefly mentioned earlier, in discussion of the duets.  Sondheim himself said that he based much of his music off the scores in Alfred Hitchcock films, so these melodies are complex and interwoven and difficult.  A lot of minor scales falling all over the place.  Therefore, when there are two singers having a go at the same time, each with their own difficult melody to sing, the effect won’t be an intricate and interlaced composition unless the performance is incredibly tight.  That’s tough to do, and it wasn’t always pulled off at 100%.  There were times when either one person felt out of control or the words were lost amongst the other singers voice and that sort of problem can happen from only the slightest wobble off such a narrow track.

            The other issue was the blood.  I said this play was a bloody mess in a good way, and it is a bloody mess, in a very entertaining fashion.  It’s a play about revenge, and murder, and eating people, if you weren’t already aware, there is assumed blood aplenty.  And when the first throat is cut, I’m sorry for the spoiler, blood shoots out everywhere!  It was surprising and shocking and amazing!  And then all the other people that Todd kills…nothing.  Not nothing, but barely a trickle of blood.  Perhaps the blood bags were malfunctioning, but if not then Coleman, you can’t set us up with such an amazing stunt and then not deliver for the rest of them, it’s anticlimactic and hurtful.  Quit playing games with my heart. 

            I said this play was a title-fight contender, and I stand by that.  The talent is too immense, the selling points too many, and the misgivings too few to not view this production as a killer.  I’m glad Portland Center Stage was able to bring these wonderful people together, and I recommend picking up your tickets very soon!

SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET plays through October 21st on the Main Stage.

For ticketing information, click the link below:

Photo credit to Patrick Weishampel

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