Sweeney Todd: Sondheim's recipe is intricate and has to be baked to perfection
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by John Meadows
Ladies and gentlemen you can't imagine the rapture in store,
Just inside of this door!
There,you'll sample Mrs Lovett's meat pies,
Savoury and sweet pies,as you'll see.
Mrs Lovett's meat pies may be delicious but each bite is also poisoned with the Grand Guignol spice of butchered human flesh. Sweeney Todd as a whole is much the same: every moment of humour is countered with bleak nihilism, every gorgeous fragment of melody is countered with a discordant blast of sound. Since premiering in 1979, a very difficult, groundbreaking musical has somehow become mainstream, the gory has become blasé, and dissonance a harmony.
Alexander Showcase Theatre is one of the few companies who seem to have the resources, or perhaps the manpower and energy, to tackle a lavish warhorse like Sweeney Todd without reimagining it as a recital or reducing it to a smaller size. This production has a set constructed on a grand scale and boasts an ensemble of 31. When all the voices soar in unison, the effect is electrifying. When the individual voices are over-miked to the point where the orchestra becomes inaudible, the voices, while still mostly thrilling, become overbearing and in many instances shrill.
The massive central platform of the set becomes an unfortunate impediment that disrupts the flow necessary for herding such a large cast on and off stage. Inconsistent lighting cues make many of the set changes glaringly visible though, on occasion, they are stylized to become deliberate. Just not consistently. Those inconsistencies are what makes this Sweeney Todd feel tentative and sluggish when it should be full throttle.
That said, the individual components are savoury and/or sweet and almost manage to mesh in order to cook up an irresistible pie. Patrick Brown as Sweeney Todd has a deep, sonorous voice that grabs attention by vibrating into one's solar plexus. What at first appears to be stiffness is revealed in the second act to be psychosis, and his lascivious finish subtly upstages the big production number just before. Sara Stahmer's Mrs Lovett is also fine-voiced and ricochets from coquettish to demonic with believable ease. The pair have an easy chemistry that well suits partners in crime.
Also notable are Joshua Wales as the male ingenue/sailor with a wide-eyed zest matched by his sterling tenor. Once Alexandra Reed is freed from a hideous wig and a sound system that rips the guts out of her lustrous soprano, she is affecting. Their comic interplay during the "Kiss Me Quartet" is a delightful satire of the shallowness of ingenues and the futility of the theatrical convention of love at first sight. Sharon Zehavi, Nina Mason, Darrell Hicks and Jeremy John Yorga all contribute fine work but also often seem to be existing in parallel universes.
Sondheim's recipe is intricate and full of unusual spices and perhaps this Sweeney Todd just needed a little more time in the crucible of a rehearsal kitchen. The meat is all there and full of flavour - it just hasn't been subjected to enough heat and inspiration to make the spices bite and the gravy flow like blood from a slit throat.