Chicago Theatre Review
Revenge That’s Easy as Pie
Sweeney Todd – Porchlight Theatre
It’s this production’s visual impact that first strikes the audience. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s enormous, atmospheric, all-encompassing set wraps around the entire theatre space, providing multiple levels with shadowy nooks and crannies where actors will hide, and a raised floor with the fires of hell shining through its grating. Even the entrance through which the audience passes, which is actually the interior of a great baking oven, sets the proper mood, offering a small “lobby,” displaying period details and setting the proper mood, from the beginning. Suddenly the lights burst full, a hair-raising factory whistle pierces the air and we behold a young man, his hands and apron dripping with blood and his face frozen in a terrified scream.
Then, from two shadowy balconies on either side of the playing area, Doug Peck’s incredible-sounding five-member musical ensemble offers Stephen Sondheim’s glorious score. Has the musical stage ever heard such a perfectly crafted composition, so eerie one moment, with its organ and cello accompaniment, and then soaring with so much beauty and heartache the next? Sondheim’s employment of angular harmony and counterpoint, his adaptation of the Roman Catholic Requiem hymn, “Day of Wrath,” as part of twenty leitmotifs that recur throughout the score and his hard-to-forget “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that both opens and closes the show and appears variously throughout are as close to perfection and one can get in musical theatre.
Sondheim labeled this show a “black opera;” others have called it the show that inspired the “grusical,” horror stories with a musical score, such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Carrie.” Whatever you want to call this musical thriller, playwright Hugh Wheeler adapted his script from Christopher Bond’s play, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which in turn was based upon a possible real-life Victorian serial killer who then made his way into the penny dreadfuls. Stephen Sondheim’s score and lyrics are considered his finest achievement. The original 1979 Broadway production rightfully swept the Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A somewhat controversial 2006 John Doyle revival, in which the actors also provided the show’s musical accompaniment, also earned two Tony Awards. A couple years later the musical finally found its way to the silver screen. This powerful musical drama has toured throughout North America and been produced the world over; educational, regional and community theatres have also staged their own versions of “Sweeney Todd,” to great acclaim.
For those few theatergoers unfamiliar with this deliciously gruesome, often heartbreaking musical, it’s a story of how revenge can envelope an individual, becoming an all-consuming obsession. It also can be considered, according to director Hal Prince, as an allegory about capitalism and “the terrible struggle to escape from the class from which you’re born.” A poor, 19th century English barber named Benjamin Barker finds his way back to London following his 15 year imprisonment in Australia on a trumped up charge. With his wife and young daughter taken by the judge responsible for this abomination of justice, the barber changes his name to Sweeney Todd and seeks revenge on all of those responsible. With assistance provided by former neighbor and baker Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney turns his obsession to exterminate evil into providing the necessary ingredients for his lady friend’s meat pies.
This production is, without a doubt, the finest, most polished and stirring of Porchlight Music Theatre’s recent history. Michael Weber’s vision for this production and his inspiring, always focused direction of this show is breathtaking. With the magnificent Doug Peck at his side, working his usual magic as Musical Director, guiding both his singing actors and musicians to harmonic excellence, and Dina DiCostanzo’s exceptional choreography and musical staging adding so much color to this production, Mr. Weber’s interpretation of Sondheim’s masterpiece is extraordinary.
Add to this so many other striking details. Jenna Moran’s intricate sound design captures all the din and reverberation of the piece. Chris Tisone provides the icing on the cake with his historically accurate properties, from lacy bird cages to silvery straight razors. And, with period accuracy and stunning artistry Bill Morey has created an astounding wardrobe of costumes and hair pieces. From Mrs. Lovett’s elegant new gown and wig for the opening of her bakery, to ensemble member Ben Barker’s meticulously assembled Victorian undertaker attire, every piece of apparel is beautiful and pitch-perfect. Just feast your eyes on the gorgeously detailed cape for Kevin Webb’s malicious, flamboyant Adolfo Pirelli to behold Morey’s spectacular talent.
Mr. Weber’s entire cast displays all the talent and heart Sondheim’s work demands, and his ensemble of individual superstars meld to achieve a perfection of sound. David Girolmo is magnificent in the title role, a part he was born to play. The actor’s subtlety, his tortured face, the explosions of rage and indignation are matched by his beautiful baritone, laying the story’s groundwork in the touching, “There Was a Barber and His Wife,” caressing the emotional lyrics of “Epiphany” and “Pretty Women” while joining in the black humor of “A Little Priest.” Rebecca Finnegan’s Mrs. Lovett is truly complex, funny one moment and frankly heartbreaking the next. Her relationships, secretly romantic (at first) with Sweeney and maternal but skeptical with Toby, are layered and honest. Ms. Finnegan brings the necessary lightness and sassy humor to the play, but she’s always in control. Carefully layering her emotional involvement with constant, new discoveries (“ideas keep popping out of my head”) the actress, whose musical talents are as strong as her acting ability, makes Nellie Lovett a dynamic, lovable and always surprising character.
Beautiful Kelli Harrington, a consummate actress and skilled vocalist in any role she plays, grounds the Beggar Woman in as much reality as can be found in this character. Her gorgeous voice leads the ensemble in so many numbers, and she’s heartbreaking in the Final Sequence staged in Sweeney’s Tonsorial Parlor. Stephanie Stockstill and Brian Acker are equally affecting and poignant as lovers Johanna and Anthony. Mr. Acker’s performance of “Johanna,” one of musical theatre’s most beautiful ballads, is heartfelt and radiant. Ms. Stockstill thrills with her sadly tragic “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Both actors meet the challenge of the tongue-twisting, comic patter song, “Kiss Me.” Kevin Webb’s gloriously sung and acted blackmailer, Adolfo Pirelli, is spot-on. Mastering two dialects as the tonsorial artist and scoundrel, as well as lending his considerable talents to the ensemble, Mr. Webb is superb.
Edward J. MacLennan and Mathias Austin make a fine duo as the dastardly Judge Turpin and smarmy Beadle Bamford. Both competently handle the musical demands of their roles while keeping their characters grounded and realistic.
The real discovery in this production, however, is a talented high school senior from Oak Park named Miles Blim. As Tobias Ragg, audiences will be impressed by this young actor’s professionalism and the ease with which he handles this complicated role. Whether running around the stage spitting out Sondheim’s intricate lyrics during “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” or pledging his heartbreaking love and protection to Mrs. Lovett in “Not While I’m Around,” this lad’s Chicago debut is solid and memorable.
Especially with Halloween lurking in the shadows, this is a perfect holiday production that begs to be seen. Unquestionably Porchlight Music Theatre’s magnum opus, Michael Weber has assembled a brilliantly talented cast, supported his production with some of Chicago’s finest musical and technical artistry and delivered an award-winning production of Sondheim’s musical classic that this city will be talking about for years to come. Audiences leaving Stage 773 will be heard exclaiming, “God, That’s Good!”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 3-November 9 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-777-9884 or by going to www.porchlightmusictheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.