Anyone in need of proof that theatrical miracles can indeed take place in our fair city need look no further than The Production Company’s miraculous new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd—miraculous because who could possibly imagine Sondheim’s big-stage, big-cast musical scaled down to a stage area about one-tenth the size of the Ahmanson’s with a cast totaling only ten—and having it work to near perfection?

The folks who could and did imagine it (and have brought it to dazzling fruition) are director extraordinaire Derek Charles Livingston and The ProdCo’s dynamic duo of August Viverito and T L Kolman. In the past year alone Viverito and Kolman have dazzled L.A. audiences with much lauded productions of Equus, M Butterfly, and The Manchurian Candidate (to name just three).  Undertaking their biggest challenge yet (and their first musical ever), the pair have once again hit a homer. The L.A. Times and other publications have already raved about Livingston’s mini-miracle (nicknamed “Teeney” Todd). StageSceneLA now adds its voice to theirs in proclaiming this Sweeney one of the best musical productions of this or any other year.

Unlike John Doyle’s London, Broadway and Ahmanson-staged reduced-cast revival, which brilliant as it was in many ways, never quite seemed like the real Sweeney Todd (but rather “Sweeney Todd as-told-by”), Livingston and The ProdCo have put together an honest-to-goodness Sweeney, and one that is sure to please Sondheim fanatics and rookies alike. 

Ten actors may seem a small cast for a show of this scale, but that’s actually about the number of principal roles there are in the show. As for ensemble sequences, Livingston has everyone but the actors playing Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett perform double duty in them, and thanks to some clever costume add-ons and Livingston’s crystal clear director’s concept, it’s easy to tell when an actor is playing his or her individual role, or appearing as an anonymous Londoner.

Though the cast totals only ten, as opposed to the original Broadway production’s twenty-seven, its ten voices raised together fill the “teeney” Chandler Studio Theatre with as powerful and ravishing harmonies as did an original Broadway company almost three times its size, and their audience-directed stares as they sing “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” gain in intensity and spook power from being so close to the front rows. In fact, about the only things missing from the ProdCo’s production are a full-sized barber’s chair and some splattering fake blood, but Viverito’s set and lighting designs prove more than adequate substitutes.

As to the cast’s voices, what gorgeous voices they are, beginning with those of Broadway veteran Kurt Andrew Hansen and the amazing Donna Pieroni. Hansen is Sweeney Todd, the former Benjamin Barker, newly returned to London following fifteen years of servitude in Australia and bent on getting revenge on the judge who trumped up charges against him in order to have Barker’s beautiful wife for himself. A chance meeting with Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Pieroni), the maker of “the worst pies in London” leads to a devilishly inspired idea—to stuff said pies with human meat. In no time at all, Mrs. Lovett is running the most popular pie shop in London, with the renamed Sweeney Todd using her upstairs room as his tonsorial parlor, where the necks of his hapless customers get sliced open by Sweeney’s deadly straight-edge razor. Meanwhile, Sweeney and a young sailor he met on his ocean journey back from Australia attempt to free the barber’s now grown daughter Johanna from the evil judge’s clutches—and matrimonial plans.

The young sailor, Anthony, is played by Brian Maples, recently of The Apple Tree, and Johanna is Little Women’s exquisite Jenny Ashman, the two young performers amply fulfilling the promise they showed in their previous L.A. appearances. Others in the ProdCo’s all-around sensational cast are Rick Cox (Beadle Bamford), Harmony Goodman (Beggar Woman), Rob Herring (Tobias), Weston I. Nathanson (Judge Turpin), Nancy Dobbs Owen (Lucy, Bird Seller), and R. Christofer Sands (Señor Pirelli, Fogg).  Nowhere else in the United States could a cast of this caliber (almost all are members of Actors’ Equity) bring Livingston’s vision to affordable life, thanks to Los Angeles’ unique 99-seat contract with AE. (If an out-of-town visitor wants to know what makes L.A. theater unequaled in the land, take him or her to see this Sweeney Todd!)

Livingston’s staging is vivid and dynamic, with seamless dramatic scene changes, memorable freeze-frame tableaux, and visually stunning flashback sequences.  Working on Viverito’s ingenious set, Livingston makes certain we know where each scene is situated, and even manages to create an upstairs-downstairs illusion on what is basically a one-level set. Though there’s no fake blood spurting from slit-open throats as in a recent big-stage production reviewed here, lighting designer Viverito’s sudden switch to blood red light, accompanied by Sweeney Todd’s signature whistle screech, gets the point across quite well without staining the set.

From his very first appearance, shoulders broad, eyes gleaming madly, and gray hair sticking out this way and that, Hansen makes it clear we will be seeing a world-class Sweeney. The New York theater vet’s acting is bold and multi-layered, he proves a great straight man for Mrs. Lovett, and his bass-baritone makes this demon barber one of the best sung ever. As for Mrs. Lovett, Pieroni is a veritable force of nature, giving a performance that easily rivals Angela Lansbury’s Broadway original.  Just over-the-top enough (watch the way she pounds her dough when preparing those “worst pies in London” or listen to how she utters the immortal line, “You know me, bright ideas just pop into my head”), Pieroni milks every possible laugh from Lovett, has a voice to reach the rafters and beyond, and shows real depth in her scenes opposite Sweeney and Tobias.  As for the oh-so-cleverly written Act One closer, “A Little Priest,” it is performed in true tour-de-force fashion by the evening’s stars.

In supporting roles, Ashman brings the beauty and delicacy of a Dresden figurine to the role of Johanna, and a glorious soprano to “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Opposite her, Maples makes for a handsome, robust romantic hero whose beautiful tenor makes “No Place Like London,” “Johanna,” and “Kiss Me” (his duet with Ashman) performance highlights.  The waiflike quality that L.A. newbie Herring brings to Tobias makes his powerful tenor all the more unexpected, and when he and Pieroni join voices for “Not While I’m Around,” they are greeted by a deserved ovation.  As the schizo beggar woman with a secret identity, Goodman has a great look (and voice) that makes her character at once creepy, pathetic, and nuttier than a fruitcake (or should that be a meat pie?).  Nathanson is grodiness personified as Judge Turpin (and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways), and possesses as magnificent a bass as you’re likely ever to hear in an intimate L.A. theater. His duet of “Pretty Women” with Hansen is as gorgeous as two voices together can get. Cox’s Beadle and Owen’s multiple roles are cast standouts as well, and Owen created the choreography for the “Poor Thing” flashback.  Finally, stealing every single scene he’s in as flamboyant barber Pirelli (he of the “miracle elixir”) is the almost indescribably hilarious Sands, in a performance reminiscent of the most colorful of Disney’s animated characters.  The Ovation-winner also does memorable work as asylum owner Fogg.

A show as operatic in size and scope as Sweeney Todd needs musical accompaniment to match its grandeur, and clearly, there is no room for a string quartet, let alone a full orchestra inside the Chandler. Ingenious musical director Richard Berent has solved this problem by layering multiple instrumental tracks onto a prerecorded soundtrack, which he controls from his upstage hiding place, playing along on piano.  The effect in such a small space is as close to hearing a live orchestra as could conceivably be achieved in a theater as small as the Chandler.

A full-sized barber chair also being logistically impossible inside the Chandler, set designer Viverito has substituted a smaller version, and instead of sliding down out of sight, Sweeney’s victims walk through swinging doors, an effect which could be improved by having them appear to slide down.  In another design highlight, oven doors appear as if by magic from the house-left wall, with Viverito’s lighting making it appear that there is indeed red-hot fire behind them.  There’s also a great effect of trapped asylum patients struggling to escape their hell-on-earth, achieved with a bloody handprint-imprinted sheet and cast members’ hands pressing against it from behind.

All in all, The ProdCo’s Sweeney Todd is about as close to an honest-to-goodness theatrical miracle as Angelinos are likely to see this year. Producers Viverito and Kolman have wisely scheduled a longer than usual run for the production, and with the combined effect of critical raves and audience word of mouth, this final ProdCo presentation of 2009 is sure to be one of the hottest tickets in town.  Book your seats now, or you’re likely to be greeted with the words, “Sorry, we’re sold out,” and this is one production no Sweeney Todd/Sondheim lover is going to want to miss.

The Production Company, Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 3, 2009

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