Santa Monica’s venerable Morgan-Wixson Theatre once again stretches the definition of “community theater” with their production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, proving that there are indeed exceptions to the rule (expressed to me just yesterday by the Artistic Director of one of our leading CLOs) that “community theaters should never do Sondheim.” The Morgan-Wixson not only can do Sondheim, they can do him quite excitingly indeed.

 Yes, James Paul Xavier’s ingeniously created set design does reveal the production’s budget limitations. Yes, William Wilday’s dramatic lighting design isn’t as spectacular as, say, Musical Theatre West’s was two years ago. Yes, there’s no live orchestra inside the Morgan-Wixson, but prerecorded orchestral tracks instead.

These types of drawbacks hardly matter, however, given direction as imaginative as Valerie Rachelle’s, music direction as spot-on as Anne Gesling’s, choreography as striking as Krystal Jasmin Combs’, costumes as eye-catching as Ellen King’s, and above all performances as impressive as those given by John McCool Bowers as Sweeney and AnnaLisa Erickson as Mrs. Lovett and by their supporting castmates.

 The real Sweeney Todd, aka the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is reputed to have murdered 160 individuals before being executed by hanging in 1801, putting contemporary serial killers to shame.

Sondheim’s musical adaptation, with book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond, introduces us to the former Benjamin Barker as the falsely convicted barber returns to London following fifteen years of servitude in Australia, bent on getting revenge on the judge who trumped up charges against him, the better to have Barker’s wife for himself. A chance meeting with Mrs. Nellie Lovett, 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.

Southland theater vets Bowers and Erickson more than hold their own against the Sweeneys and Mrs. Lovetts who have gone before them, a grand tradition begun in 1979 by Broadway’s Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

Bowers’ Sweeney is a towering presence on the Morgan-Wixson stage, frightening and yet not without heart and sex appeal, making Mrs. Lovett’s infatuation with him all the more credible. Erickson puts her own deliciously daffy stamp on Mrs. Lovett, her duets with Bowers’ big basso profondo particular treats, whether ending Act One with a hilarious bang in “A Little Priest” or in Act Two’s fun and fanciful “By The Sea.”

 As Sweeney’s sailor friend Anthony, Vincent Perez sings as gorgeous a “Johanna” as I’ve heard. His love interest, the aforementioned Johanna (daughter of Sweeney Todd and ward of evil Judge Turpin), is played by the marvelous Natasha Harris, whose glorious soprano duets with Perez’s tenor in “Kiss Me.” (Talk about versatility, Perez’s last Morgan-Wixson role was as Mary Sunshine in Chicago and I don’t know anyone other than Harris who can play Hairspray’s dorky Penny Pingleton, West Side Story’s tomboy Anybodys, and Sweeney Todd’s angelic Johanna.)

Set designer Xavier doubles as Tobias, the orphan taken in by Mrs. Lovett to help in the pie shop, and though his tenor is not quite up to the demands of “Not While I’m Around,” he does bring out Tobias’s innate sweetness and good heart. Brandon Stanford is flamboyantly fabulous as Adolfo Pirelli, whose Miracle Elixir is said to be a cure for every ailment under the sun. Michael Heimos is creepiness personified as the corrupt, lascivious Judge Turpin, Tom McMahon appropriately imperious as Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s right hand man, and Joanna Churgin quite stunning as a lascivious Beggar Woman with more than alms on her mind.

 The ensemble is completed in splendid fashion by Matthew Artson, Carolyn Freeman Champ, Ayelet Firstenberg, Steven Flowers (Bird Seller), Jim Goodrich, Lucas Moore (Jonas Fogg), Sheldon Robert Morley, Danielle Morris, Yassi Noubahar, Eileen Cherry O’Donnell, Daniella Painton, and John David Wallis—all of whom join voices to harmonious perfection in “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd,” “God That’s Good,” and “City On Fire.”

Director Rachelle’s highly original vision is evident from the production’s opening scene, which has ensemble members dragged out on stage one by one, the pile of “corpses” returning spookily to life with the opening strains of “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd.” “The Barber And His Wife” makes for a particularly imaginative flashback with choreography by Combs. The pub scene that opens Act Two is another Rachelle/Combs winner as is the production’s most dramatic sequence, the ominous “City On Fire.”

I’ve seen more blood-squirtingly realistic neck-slitting in previous Sweeneys, but the barber chair-to-basement journey taken by each of Sweeney’s visitors gets deserved laughs every time. As for that signature screech of a whistle, it’s every bit as loud and strident as you could wish (thanks to Bob Moreno’s tiptop sound design), especially when accompanied by Wilday’s momentarily blinding flashes of light. Xavier’s appropriately grungy set design accomplishes scene changes with some quick furniture movement by well-rehearsed cast members. The candy-striped gown King has designed for Erickson’s Mrs. Lovett is a special favorite of mine.

Susie Nunez assists costume designer King. Joe Anderson is stage manager, David Islas light board operator, and Briane Green sound board operator.  Sweeney Todd is produced by Gesling and Meredith Wright.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing a series of WOW!-worthy musicals at the Morgan-Wixson, from Thoroughly Modern Millie to Urinetown to A Chorus Line to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to last year’s Chicago. Sweeney Todd is one of their very best, and considering the Morgan Wixson’s track record, that is high praise indeed.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
March 10, 2012
Photos: Tris Beezley

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