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BWW Review: God, That's Good! - Marcia P. Hoffman School for the Arts Presents Stephen Sondheim's Dark Masterpiece SWEENEY TODD at Ruth Eckerd Hall

BWW Review: God, That's Good! - Marcia P. Hoffman School for the Arts Presents Stephen Sondheim's Dark Masterpiece SWEENEY TODD at Ruth Eckerd Hall

"SWEENEY TODD has been called by people who care about categories everything from an opera to a song cycle...'Dark operetta' is the closest I can come, but that's as much a misnomer as any of the others. What SWEENEY TODD really is is a movie for the stage." --Stephen Sondheim

What is the greatest musical of all time? Since you are reading this on BWW, I'm sure that you've asked that question at least once in your lifetime. Answering it is a bit more problematic. There are those who would choose such luminaries as Anything Goes, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, A Chorus Line, Les Miserables or even Hamilton as their pick to head that coveted list. But for my money, it gets no better than Stephen Sondheim's ghoulish masterpiece, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. To my ears, it is hands down the greatest musical yet written.

I first saw SWEENEY TODD in a so-so High Desert production nearly thirty years ago, but even at the time I could see the greatness that was being masked by the production's inadequacies. Since then, I have experienced this darkest of musicals several times, including the hilarious elementary school rendition of "God, That's Good!" in Jersey Girl. So I was curious how the "school edition" of SWEENEY TODD, featuring a cast of teens, would play out. Would it be like kindergartners trying to tackle Titus Andronicus? Or middle schoolers barbarically plowing their way through Dawn of the Dead?

I needn't have worried. The talented cast from the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall have admirably done the show justice. It is certainly dark; it is certainly not everyone's cup of hemlock; but it is also most certainly a great way to experience this masterpiece for the first time.

I was immediately shocked by how many people in the audience had never even heard of SWEENEY TODD (and those that did only knew it from the Johnny Depp movie version). "I've never heard of this thing," one of the older ushers told me. "And I'm a constant theater-goer." Theatre students told me that they had heard of it but couldn't identify any of the songs (not even "Pretty Women" or "Not While I'm Around"?). To me, not hearing of SWEENEY TODD is akin to never hearing of Citizen Kane or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here I've been throwing this "greatest musical" moniker around, and yet most of the audience had never even heard of it.

Some in attendance obviously didn't understand. They found it somewhat distasteful, for lack of a better word, unable to separate the horror from the humor. They want their witches of Wicked or their Disney princesses; they don't want to watch a darkly hilarious tale on cannibalism and revenge gone wrong. They left with quizzical, somewhat confused expressions on their faces, obviously wondering, "Were they just eating dead bodies in this musical? We're not used to this; we're used to The King and I, not Eating People in a Pie!" The little girl and her family that sat behind me must have been so disturbed by what they saw that they did not return after intermission.

So yes, SWEENEY TODD is not for everyone's taste. It may not be the audience pleaser that easy fare like The Sound of Music or Mamma Mia have to offer, but it's richer, far deeper. And so much better. For those who want to dive into this macabre pool, who want to experience the finest lyrics and music written for the stage by the man rightfully called "The Genius," then this production offers tremendous rewards.

Leading the pack, in one of the best teenage performances I have ever witnessed, is Bailey Beck Walman, who is a marvel as the title character. His Sweeney looks like the odd synthesis of Heath Ledger's Joker, Steve Buscemi (from Reservoir Dogs), Joe Pantoliano (from The Sopranos), Mr. Sardonicus and Jeffrey Dahmer. And that voice, echoing throughout Ruth Eckerd Hall, is a revelation--so deep, resonate, and truly frightening. He rightfully sings one of this numbers as the show's big love song--"My Friends," Sweeney's romantic ode to his razors. And he gets the finest trifecta of songs in musical theatre history with "Pretty Women," "Epiphany," and "A Little Priest" all in a row, nailing each one of them brilliantly. It's amazing to see someone so young putting out glorious work like this. You sense a rabid joy in his Sweeney, an artist with a knife finally finding his tools, his voice, when he discovers the art of murder. It's an incredibly scary portrayal, and knowing that this young man, this force of nature, is still a teenager will warm your heart as he chills your bones.

As the wicked Mrs. Lovett, a part made famous by Angela Lansbury, Caitlin Ostrowski starts off a bit shaky, but she comes into her own as the show progresses. By Act 2, she owns the stage and is easily Walman's equal. Her "By the Sea" is one of the finest I have ever seen, so funny and full of heart and warped hope. She's a natural comedienne, but sometimes it was hard to understand her, especially in Act 1 (her "The Worst Pies in London" was almost drowned out by the music). I also miss Mrs. Lovett's horns in her hair, a peak at her true nature; it's just another clue to the devilry behind one of musical theatre's great parts.

Sean Cunningham, looking like the member of a Boy Band, is wonderful in his songs as Anthony, including the show-stopping "Johanna." As Johanna, the blonde damsel in distress, Julia LaPierre is the personification of loveliness and she boasts a truly heavenly singing voice. Stephany Levi is positively stunning in the key role of the Beggar Woman. Ms. Levi also appeared as Hope in SPC's stellar Urinetown earlier this summer, and you would never know it was the same actress here.

Chris Cavazza looks ten feet tall on stage as the villainous Judge Turpin. He takes things menacingly slow, foreboding, which is difficult for teenagers to do (they usually just want to rush-rush-rush and push-push-push through their scenes). His duet with Sweeney, "Pretty Women," a ditty they sing together as Sweeney plans to slice his throat, is one of the highlights of the production.

It was at first startling to see a young lady in the role of the Beadle and not a hulking male presence. But as played by Kathrine Davis, the Beadle becomes a baddie to be reckoned with. She sings marvelously, hitting the high notes that many young men cannot. Jacob Ramiriz is energetic and fun as Tobias. In his "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," sporting a black wig and a bowler hat, he looks like Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon. As Pirelli, Sweeney's rival barber, Christian Torres is a hoot, chewing the scenery in one of the theatre's great scene-stealing roles.

The ensemble and ghostly choir hover around the stage, dressed in black and white, many of them donning dark round glasses. They look like Edward Gorey works come to life (or, rather, death). The ensemble's first number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," sounded superb, with Shaun Memmel's deep voice opening the show with those eerie lines, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd; his skin was pale and his eye was odd..." And "The Letter," Sweeney's missive to Judge Turpin creepily sung by members of the ensemble, was simply to die for. But other group numbers sounded messy and a bit raggedy, not nearly as put together. And Act 1 seemed to drag at times.

The Ghostly Choir includes Seaira Anderson, Connor Buffa, Marca Camuzzi, Dior Dollmont, Graham Mastro, Jonah Mastro, Colleen McManamon, Marissa Milam, Kiana Sipe and Shaun Memmel. And the ensemble features Nevaeh Babb, Rebecca Bandy, Haylie Brito, Lily Crocamo, Zakerry Englert, Bella Harvey, Chlie Hack, Peyton Kressevich, Stephanos Logan, Emma Lotti, Lindsey Mcneave, Dorian Perez, Nicole Sklaver, Kyndall Small, Rachel Sprague, Taylor Vernon, and Reilly Wolf. Rounding out the cast is Eva Campuzano as Jonas Fogg, Shelby Lennox and Christina Karalis as policemen, and Cameron Swango as the bird seller.

Guiding this whole group, this immense spectacle, is the intensely creative director, Jack Holloway. His tableaux's, the ingenious stage pictures, are worthy of the dark world of de Sagazan. Even "By the Sea," where the Ghostly Choir stand behind Ms. Lovett, turns out hilariously disquieting. Holloway knows what he's doing with the material and brings out the best in these young performers. Yes, there was a sloppiness to some of the numbers, but the fact that Holloway only had four weeks to mount this Goliath of a production, and to do it so well, is a miracle in and of itself.

Yohance Wicks does a remarkable job as the musical director, and the orchestra sounds exquisite. I just wish the names of the musicians were mentioned in the program so I could give them the proper accolades. (Speaking of which, a song list added to the program would also work wonders.) The "Conceptual Choreography" of Christopher Liddell is appropriate to the droll dread of the proceedings. Myndee Washington's costumes work quite well for the time period, and Misty Hornsby's makeup design adds a spooky Halloween-feel to the show. Niko Lyons lighting is sensational, especially during the dramatic Fogg's Asylum scene of Act 2. The set, constructed by Tony Carroccia, is quite functional and looks like an erector set planted smack dab in the pits of Victorian hell.

There is no actual blood splattering around in this production, but it is still not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But for those seeking something different, something entertainingly sinister and unusual, you can't go wrong. Even more thrilling than seeing once again what I consider the greatest musical of all time is witnessing a mere teenager tackle the title role so brilliantly. Good as the whole thing is, it is his harrowing and darkly hilarious performance that I take with me. Bailey Beck Walman. Remember that name.

Sondheim would be proud.

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (School Edition) plays at Ruth Eckerd Hall thru Saturday, July 28.

Photo credit: Bella Harvey.

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From This Author Peter Nason