The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is back, supersized, in Musical Theatre West’s excellent revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.  A cast of twenty-seven and a twenty-two piece orchestra make this the biggest Sweeney in recent memory, welcome news indeed for theatergoers grown tired of downsized shows.

Few are those who haven’t at least once “attended” the tale of Benjamin Barker, the London barber convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and shipped off to Australia by a lecherous judge with designs on Sweeney’s wife Lucy. Now, fifteen years later, Lucy is out of the picture and evil Judge Turpin has set his sights on Sweeney’s blonde and beautiful daughter Johanna. Meanwhile, there’s a new man in London town, one who bears a striking resemblance to Barker but goes by the name of Sweeney Todd. When Sweeney stops in at the pie shop located downstairs from his onetime tonsorial parlor, the down-on-her-luck proprietress Mrs. Lovett isn’t fooled by the new name, recognizing at once returning ex-con.  His razors restored to him, Sweeney begins a killing spree with Judge Turpin as his ultimate goal, and when confronted with the question of where to put the bodies, he and Mrs. Lovett come up with a solution to both their problems.  No longer will she be selling “The Worst Pies In London” nor will Sweeney have to worry about corpse disposal. From now on, her confections will be filled with “A Little Priest,” or perhaps a little tinker, or a little butler, or a little locksmith.

Sondheim is in his darkest mode here, his melodies and rhythms among the most complex he has written, though there are several simply beautiful (and beautifully simple) songs, most notably “Johanna” and “Not While I’m Around.”  There are also comic relief numbers like “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” “A Little Priest,” and “By The Sea” to brighten the gloom, at least temporarily.  Still, it’s the murky darkness of “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd” and “City On Fire!” that most epitomize the demon barber’s black, black heart.

Director/musical stager Calvin Remsberg proves his versatility by following the intimate, risqué F*cking Men with its antithesis, the humungous giant that is Sweeney Todd when performed in classic Broadway proportions. A more appropriate choice for director could not have been found, Remsberg having directed two previous Sweeneys as well as having played Beadle Bramford across the country in the First National Tour. 

Remsberg has restored three Sweeney Todd numbers not usually performed, and the production is all the richer for them. In “Miracle Elixir” Adolfo Pirelli now not only enters into a shaving contest with Sweeney, there’s a tooth-pulling competition as well. Judge Turpin gets his own turn at singing “Johanna,” complete with self-flagellation—icky, but entirely character appropriate.  The Beggar Woman’s “Lullaby” has also been restored, making her ultimate fate all the more poignant.

Performances are uniformly fine, and there’s nary a weak voice in the entire company. Norman Large is an unremittingly menacing presence as Sweeney and Debbie Prutsman brings a Lucy-esque cuteness to the role of Mrs. Lovett. Dan Callaway once again proves himself one of our finest young musical theater leading men (in the classic mode) as Anthony, and gorgeous Sarah Bermudez has the most glorious soprano in town as Johanna. There’s not a creepier Judge Turpin around than Richard Gould. Roland Rusinek (Beadle Banford) and Alan M-L Pirelli also do commendable work, as do Jason Evans (Bird Seller) and Victor Hernandez (Jonas Fogg) in smaller roles.

Still, in the huge ensemble, two performances stand out above the rest.  As the Beggar Woman, Ovation Award-winner Michelle Duffy shows yet again why she was named StageSceneLA’s Performer Of The Year two years back. Taking a relatively minor role and giving it lead character proportions, Duffy paints a frighteningly real portrait of schizophrenic madness, and the role allows her to show off those amazing Duffy pipes in both legit and pop/dramatic mode.  Jim Holdridge follows his Ovation Award-nominated role in Life Could Be A Dream with another scene-stealing turn as Pirelli sidekick-turned-bakery worker Tobias.  Combining sweetness, quirkiness, cuteness, and vulnerability, Holdridge wins audience hearts from the get-go and sings “Not While I’m Around” to perfection.

Completing the cast in superb fashion are Richard Bermudez, Jeremy Bernard, Jessica Bernard, Lois Bourgon, dance captain Travis Davidson, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Zane Gerson, Amy Gillette, Rachel Pfeiffer Green, Bill Marty Johnson, Heather Lundstedt, Isaac James, Amber Mercomes, Michael Skidgel, Christopher Van Etten, and Joy Weiser. (Don’t expect to recognize many of them, though, under the show’s grand guignol makeup.)

Musical director John Glaudini deserves highest marks for conducting the bigger-than-usual orchestra and coaxing such gorgeous vocal performances from the cast, particularly when the full company’s voices are joined in thrilling harmony.

Jean-Yves Tessier’s moody lighting design, Julie Ferrin’s crisp, clear sound design (including Sweeney’s signature “scare whistle”), Yolanda Rowell’s costume coordination, and Cliff Senior’s wigs all deserve thumbs up. Sets have been provided by Off-Broadway West, LLC., and whoever those big guys are who push the Pie Shop around, they deserve an extra hand for this muscle-straining work.

Sweeney Todd may not be for every theatergoer, and for those who find a murderous barber not their cup of tea, The Marvelous Wonderettes are next up for Musical Theatre West subscribers.  Still, whether Sweeney tops your own personal list of Sondheim favorites or not, few can dispute the show’s power to move and shock, and in this supersized revival, there is ample reason to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
February 4, 2010

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