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Cygnet Theatre honors Sondheim best way possible

Carol Davis

 By Carol Davis

 SAN DIEGO–Stephen Sondheim turned eighty this year and what better way to honor him than by mounting one of his plays in a BIG way! Whether by choice or chance, artistic director Sean Murray and his creative team decided to add  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to its season.

In 2008 they mounted another Sondheim’ A Little Night Music. A staged reading of Assassins in 2004 had been scheduled to becoming a full staged production in 2009 but was pulled since it was to be mounted the same month as the inauguration of President Obama. On April 12th and 13th Murray has a concert-staged reading of Sondheim’s Passion scheduled. It will be directed by Kim Strassburger and will feature Sandy Campbell, Jason Heil, and Jim Chovik.

If this is a trend and the powers that be decide to produce all of Sondheim’s works, I say, “Bring it on.”

Based on past history, Stephen Sondheim’s works are in good hands with Murray at the helm, as this current production surely will attest. It will long be remembered as most likely one of the best shows in Cygnet’s history and this theatre has a long list of Bests! “Todd” has already been extended two weeks past its original closing date.

“Sweeny Todd,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler (based Christopher Bond’s 1973 play) is not your usual run of the mill happy la da dee musicals. It’s dark, bloody, broody, deliciously wicked and gruesome in tone and look and it is revenge driven. At times it is sprinkled with some pretty dark humor, but one has to be of that mind set. And some of Sondheim’s more popular and more recognizable songs come from this musical; “Johanna”, “Pretty Women” and “Not While I’m Around”.

It’s the darker and more ominous music that drive the mood and story of the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’(“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”) who was shipped off to Australia on trumped up charges by the slimy and corrupt Judge Turpin (Steve Gunderson) who wanted Sweeney’s beautiful wife for himself. 

Turpin then violated Todd’s wife (it was Barker before he was sent away) and kept their baby daughter, Johanna (Ashley Fox Linton) hostage only to want her for himself as the story picks up fifteen years later. Sondheim’s book is based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name.

When we meet up with Todd (Sean Murray) on his return to the scene of the crime, Fleet Street, 19th century London, he learns of the fate of both his wife and daughter from Mrs. Lovett, the widow whose pie shop (“The Worse Pies in London”) is on bottom floor of Todd’s old flat. In the retelling of the story of what happened to his family, however, she bends the truth about his wife’s death which in turn turns out to be a calculated mistake, one she pays for dearly.

Given her account though, he becomes so enraged when he learns that his wife was raped and then poisoned and his daughter adopted by the contemptible Judge, all he can think of is revenge! And so the tale of Sweeney Todd and his sidekick Mrs. Lovett (Deborah Gilmour Smith) begins. (Their duets together; “My Friends” “A Little Priest” are scrumptious.)

Todd’s crime spree and downward spiral to insanity comes fast and furious.  When a rival barber and con man Pirelli (Kürt Norby) recognizes him and threatens to expose Barker’s true identity, the now Todd kills him off with the blade of his straight razor right through the jugular.  It’s all-elementary my dear. Anyone looking to have a shave and a haircut above Mrs. Lovett’s shop gets the same treatment. Todd doesn’t discriminate he dismantles.

Lovett’s the one whose meat pie business (“The Worst Pies in London”) increases threefold after Todd starts his barbering again over her London Shop. Sweeney, who is now even more crazed after he kills Pirelli, develops a penchant for slicing the throats of his customers and then dropping them, literally through a trap door that leads straight to the cellar where Lovett’s meat grinder and furnace meet (or meat?)

The two form an unholy alliance, as the killings seem to get easier; he slaughters, she cooks meat pies. This madness continues while Todd tries to get his daughter back, the Judge in his chair for a ‘haircut’, Lovett vies for Todd’s affection and the Judge announces his plans to take Johanna for his bride.

Lurking in the shadows and adding more mystery to the tale are the Judge’s sadistic henchman and overseer of the law, The Beadle (Geno Carr), the young sailor Anthony Hope (Jacob Caltrider) who is smitten with Johanna and who tries to free her from the hands of Judge Turpin and the orphan boy Tobias Ragg (Tom Zohar) the deranged lad Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing to keep him busy and away from snooping around Todd. All converge as Todd’s madness and killings intensify and multiply.

It gets pretty gruesome and bloody, but not nearly as bloody nor as dark as the recent movie that came out a few years ago starring Johnny Depp. That’s not to say that Cygnet’s production doesn’t spurt a few blood droplets every now and then or isn’t dark in tone or look. But if compared to the movie or almost every other local production I’ve seen, they surpass the Depp enterprise by leaps and bounds.

This particular production merits an A+ from the bottom up including the five live musicians under the direction of Charlie Reuter on piano and keyboards. The organ music that opened the show literally shook the house in the opening moments. It was unsettling. The musicians include Manny Castro … Brass, Diana Elledge … Cello, and Joseph Howell… Woodwinds, Dave Rumley … Percussions and of course, Reuter. Everything worked perfectly to the advantage of Sondheim’s score with the help of Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design.

The eleven member cast dressed to dreary nines in 19th period variety  (Shirley Pierson) are no less impressive than are their voices that ring from the stage and throughout the house including several forays into the audience. Sondheim’s music (all 30) and lyrics drive Wheeler’s book and the voices in the cast; both singular and chorus never miss a beat. The whole look is stunning and mesmerizing.

Director Murray, who plays Sweeney with the intensity of a crazed man, (James Vasquez co-directed and choreographed) still has the chops to belt out the feelings of madness and desperation of man about to right wrongs done to him by the powers that be. In an eerie introduction, he is lifted from the trap door (Sean Fanning) beneath the stage, the same one his victims fall through later on, white faced, eyes outlined in black, hair draped around his face, blood stains on his shirt and carrying a haunted, far away look.

Following close behind in both look and tone is the wonderful Deborah Gilmour Smyth, as Mrs. Lovett looking about as demented discombobulated as her sidekick and co conspirator, Sweeney. Peter Herman’s wig artistry helped with that look.

One of the leading voices for Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado, Smyth is a hoot as the Cockney pie maker whose use of the remains of Todd’s victims is about as sick as anyone can imagine when the pies she makes become a local treat after Todd begins his mass slaughtering. As sickening as it might be, she appears to be relishing (pardon the pun) the job as she pounds the dough with the palm of one hand and waves her trusty rolling pin through the air with the other.

Ms. Smyth, who has also written original music for many productions at Lamb’s, will be remembered for her outstanding performance as Margaret in the 2008 production of  Light In The Piazza at Lamb’s.  She received the San Diego Theatre Critics Award for Outstanding Female Lead in a Musical. She does have the range for both Sondheim and Guettel, as well as the more conventional. The more we hear her sing the more we appreciate her talents.

Steve Gunderson, who plays Papa Who in The Old Globe’s annual tribute to Dr. Seuss in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, is as menacing a Judge Turpin as he is a gentle Papa Who. With his sidekick The Beadle (Geno Carr is even more frightening and slippery than the Judge) who follows close behind with an evil about him more treacherous than one would imagine, this Victorian drama rings true to its time.

Both Ashley Fox Linton and Jacob Caltrider as Johanna and Anthony Hope are more than convincing as the young couple gaga with each other. Tom Zohar’s Tobias Ragg (a fitting name for a rag a muffin), another remnant of the era as he scrambles around doing Mrs. Lovett’s bidding, reminding me of a frightened animal waiting to be caught. Cynthia Marty does about as much as she can as the mysterious Beggar Woman and Trevor Hollingsworth, tall as he is, stands out as one of the many versatile chorus members.

Sean Fanning’s effective set, a series of metal cat walks that wind and weave along the stage leading to Sweeney’s room with spiraling stairs on to the street and down to the basement  complete with furnace is dimly lit by Eric Lotze’s subtle and able lighting.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street might not be your favorite dish, but it is truly worthy of a look-see.  

See you at the theatre.

Dates: March 18th –May 9, 2010

Organization: Cygnet Theatre Company

Phone: 619-337-1525

Production Type: Musical

Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

Ticket Prices: $17.00 (previews) -$49.00

Web: wwwcygnettheatre.com

Venue: Theatre in Old Town


Drama critic Davis is based in San Diego

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