THE BASICS: SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 1979 Tony Award winning musical by Sondheim & Wheeler, directed by John Fredo with Matt Witten in the title role and an all-star cast (see below) opened on September 7 and runs through September 30, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at both 3:30 and 7:30, Sundays at 2 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue on the D’Youville College Campus. (829-7668). Note: On Friday, September 14, the Curtain Up! show is at 8. Runtime: 3 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The chorus warns us to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” and soon we meet a middle-aged man, a barber by trade, Benjamin Barker by name. It’s 1846 and on his perilous journey back to London from 15 years in a penal colony the barber has been befriended by a virtuous and upbeat young sailor, Anthony Hope. Anthony is looking forward to the wonders of London, but the barber, now traveling under the name of Sweeney Todd, warns him that: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit!… and it goes by the name of London.” Why so serious, Sweeney?
Here’s why. Fifteen years ago, he had been torn away from his beautiful wife and beloved one-year-old daughter and banished to Australia by the evil Judge Turpin who then raped the barber’s wife. In her grief, she took poison, the infant was adopted by Turpin as his ward, and as the musical opens the Judge now has designs on the innocent sweet-sixteen-year-old Johanna, Todd’s daughter. Meanwhile, Todd has sworn revenge, not only on the judge, but on everyone complicit in the original crime, and anyone who stands in the way of retribution. He executes these folks as they await a shave by slitting their throats and sliding them from his barber’s chair down a chute. There they are turned into tasty meat pies by Todd’s old neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, whose ingredient costs had been a problem up to now. This is good. It’s what business people call a “win-win.”
While Todd seeks revenge, we certainly hope that Johanna will be rescued by the good-hearted young Anthony and so we have two timeless plots – revenge and rescue – for the price of one. And we have Sondheim, our last living connection (88 years old) with the “Golden Age” of American musicals.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Directed by a master of musical theater, John Fredo, this is another season-opening hit for the Kavinoky with a formidable cast of Buffalo actors starring Matt Witten, the man with the big voice and ferocious demeanor and Loraine O’Donnell who has attained the right age and voice for Mrs. Lovett, the kind-hearted, but very practical pie baker.
Speaking of O’Donnell, who last season directed “Second Generation” Theatre’s LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, it was almost a PIAZZA reunion with Witten, Leah Berst and her gorgeous soprano as Johanna, comic Marc Sacco as the Italian/Irish barber, Kelly Copps in the ensemble, and Lucas DeNies as poor Tobias Ragg, the street urchin adopted by Mrs. Lovett. Those folks put on a first rate show last year and haven’t missed a step this time around.
But it doesn’t end there. Peter Palmisano plays the evil judge perfectly in this age of #MeToo without melodrama. And, very heavily made-up to look pretty awful on the foggy streets of London are the usually very attractive Charmagne Chi who can really hit those high notes. Adam Eckmair, Karen Grace Harty, Dudney Joseph, Bill Lovern as the Beadle, Ben Michael Moran, Aleks Malejs as the “Beggar Woman,” and Bob Mazierski. They were very hard to recognize on stage. I guess that’s why they call them “actors.”
Kudos to the band, as well, not your typical small ensemble, this was an 8-person affair, including a French horn, all led by Allan Paglia. The set was clever, at times Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, then her living room, Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop, Judge Turpin’s house both exterior and interior, an institution for the criminally insane, and the creepy sub-basement where Todd and Lovett pull victims from the chute, finish them off, grind them up so they’re not gristly, and put them in the oven, which is pretty grisly.
Sometimes, when I worry that I might be biased in favor of the home town team, I pretend that I’m “out of town” and see how the production feels then.
Sometimes, when I worry that I might be biased in favor of the home town team, I pretend that I’m “out of town” and see how the production feels then. I have to tell you, it held up in my mind. In fact, it’s better than the Shaw Festival production of a few years back. I say all of this to let you know that you should absolutely go. You’ll love it, everyone I’ve talked to feels the same way, it’s really good.
However, I have a few quibbles. My seat was Section: Orchestra Left, Row E (pretty close to the stage), Seat 7. First problem, the sound system was so bad that I had to move. Thankfully on opening night there were empty seats in my section away from the stage and away from the loud speakers which are hung on the proscenium. I checked with people sitting in the equivalent section, Orchestra Right, and they also found the speakers there obnoxious. And the band was prone to overpower the singers from time to time. Everybody, singers and musicians, are amplified and blasted through a couple of small speakers, so some of the problem may have been adjusting the mix. Still, my advice is to get seats in the center or if you can only get seats on the sides, get them at least five rows back from the speakers.
Second problem. The on-stage balcony on which Johanna first appears as she sings the famous “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” was completely blocked from my view by the overhang of the Kavinoky’s balcony. So I enjoyed the disembodied song but would have liked to have seen Ms. Berst as well as heard her. I know the stage is small, but everyone with a ticket should be guaranteed sight-lines.
One sight-line I could have done without, though, sitting in Orchestra Left, was a clear view straight to the back of the stage, where various actors could be seen coming and going just after their scenes. Kinda kills the magic to see someone who should be dead sneaking off up stage right.
Quibbles aside, this show is a must-see and I hope that you get a chance.
UP NEXT: A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 by Lucas Hnath (November 2nd – 25th) directed by Robert Waterhouse. When we last saw Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s landmark 1879 drama A DOLL’S HOUSE, she walked out the door, leaving her family behind. Fresh off its award-winning Broadway run, this play begins 15 years later and Nora has returned for a visit.
SPAMALOT by Eric Idle and John Du Prez (January 11th – February 3rd) directed and choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato. Monty Python’s Eric Idle and composer John Du Prez adapted the classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” into a musical.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee, dramatized by Christopher Sergel (March 8th – 31st) directed by Kyle LoConti. Adapted for the stage, this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Scout and Atticus and honor and injustice in the Deep South.
EQUIVOCATION by Bill Cain (April 26th-May 19th). William Shakespeare is commissioned to write the true history of the Gunpowder Plot but suspects the government’s version might be a product of “alternative facts.” Now, the greatest writer of all time must decide between writing a lie and losing his soul or writing the truth and losing his head.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!