The sexual heat is on in Sweeney Todd, and if that sounds like an impossibility to those who’ve only seen Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett played by actors well into their forties, fifties, or even older, then just wait till you feel the heat ignited by Robert J. Townsend and Bets Malone in Moonlight Stage Productions’ ground-breaking revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical smash, brilliantly directed by Steven Glaudini.

 Based on the real-life tale of the infamous Demon Barber of Fleet Street, reputed to have murdered 160 individuals before being executed by hanging in 1801,  Sweeney Todd The Musical (with book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond) introduces us to the former Benjamin Barker (Townsend), falsely convicted of murder and shipped off for a decade and a half of servitude in Australia.   Now, his fifteen-year sentence completed,  barber Barker has returned to London, bent on getting revenge on the judge who trumped up charges against him so as to have Barker’s wife for himself. To his horror, Barker learns that Lucy is out of the picture and that evil Judge Turpin (Randall Dodge) has set his sights on the barber’s beautiful blonde daughter Johanna (Joanna Holliman).

His razors restored to him by an obliging Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney now begins a killing spree with Judge Turpin as his ultimate goal. As for the problem of how to get rid of 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.

 Meanwhile, Sweeney and Anthony Hope (Anthony Carillo), the sailor Sweeney met on his ocean journey back from Australia, attempt to free the barber’s now grown daughter from the clutches (and matrimonial plans) of the evil Judge Turpin and his accomplice in crime Beadle Bamford (Jason W. Webb).

Also figuring in The Tale Of Sweeney Todd are Italian-accented con-artist Adolfo Pirelli (Jason Maddy), whose “Miracle Elixir” Sweeney exposes as the hoax it is before bumping him off; Tobias Ragg (Jordon Aragon), Pirelli’s sweet but simple-minded (and now unemployed) assistant, who is soon hired by Todd and Lovett to assist in her pie shop; and a nameless, demented Beggar Woman (Jessica Bernard), in whom Sweeney’s face sparks some distant glimmer of recognition.

Sweeney Todd The Musical features Sondheim in his darkest mode, 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 Glaudini keeps the mood appropriately dark on the Moonlight stage, but that doesn’t stop the sexual fires from burning between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, the duo younger, hotter, and more passionate than you have probably ever seen them, brought to bold, sizzling life by two of SoCal’s most gifted musical theater stars.

Townsend’s Ovation-award-winning turn as the murderous alter ego of Dr. Henry Jekyll in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Jekyll & Hyde proved that the All-American boy-next-door could play dark and dangerous and darned sexy, a feat he repeats on the Moonlight Amphitheatre stage … and then some.

 As for Malone, while the stage star’s distinctive high-pitched voice and bubbly manner have made her the ideal choice to play perky, quirky roles like The Marvelous Wonderette’s Suzy Simpson, Once Upon A Mattress’s Princess Winnifred, and Annie’s Lily St. Regis, her gutsier turns as Oliver’s Nancy and Evita’s Eva have revealed a versatility that serves her well in her rawest, raunchiest, yet still utterly adorable performance as a Mrs. Lovett who not only loves it, she actually does it (albeit offstage) with hunky Mr. Todd.

Musically, you won’t find a stronger Sweeney or Mrs. Lovett than Townsend and Malone anytime soon, his vocals proving every bit as powerful as Sweeney’s dangerously handsome looks, and hers deserving special snaps for the deeper, darker quality attained here.

 Supporting performances are uniformly strong, from Dodge’s dastardly Judge Turpin to Webb’s nefarious Beadle Banford to Carillo’s uber-romantic Anthony to Holliman’s golden-tressed Johanna, and all four are phenomenal singers as well. A terrific Maddy gives the quirky Pirelli an edge I haven’t seen before, with Johnny Fletcher (Bird Seller) , Eric Hellmers (Jonas Fogg), Skylar Starrs Siben (Little Girl), and Susan Stuber (Mrs. Mooney) doing nicely in cameos.

As for Beggar Woman and Tobias, Bernard and Aragon threaten to walk away with the show every time they’re on. Unrecognizable in old age makeup, fright wig, and rags, Bernard not only sings sensationally, she demonstrates tour de force acting chops in a heartbreaking eleventh hour sequence which gets cut from most Sweeneys. As for Aragon, the recent UCLA grad grabs your heart from the get-go, acts with uncommon force and depth, and sings “Not While I’m Around” as gorgeously as I’ve heard it sung. And just wait till you see the very different twist this Mrs. Lovett and Tobias give to this signature Act Two duet.

Unlike San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre’s justly lauded 2010 Sweeney Todd revival, Sweeny at Moonlight is no scaled-down, intimate affair but one that fills the stage with a nineteen-member chorus of superb singers: Fernando Acevedo, Jonathan Arana, Fletcher, Kyrsten Hafso, Elise Harvey, Laura M. Hathaway, Hellmers, Alexis Henderson, Ralph Johnson, Charlene Koepf, Matthew Malecki, musical staging assistant Michael J. Marchak, Mitzi Michaels, Cesare G. Quintero, Kirklyn Robinson, Siben, Stuber, Billy Thompson, and Connor Tibbs, with special snaps to Quintet members Fletcher, Harvey, Hathaway, Quintero, and Thompson.

 Musical director Elan McMahan not only has elicited spectacular vocals from the abovementioned ensemble, but conducts a fabulous, bigger-than-Broadway 22-piece live orchestra.

Glaudini’s striking musical staging on the rented Citrus College set combine with Jean-Yves Tessier’s dramatic lighting and Roslyn Lehman, Renatta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone’s stunning costumes* to make Sweeney at Moonlight a visual treat as well. Mrs. Lovett’s gowns, designed by Lloyd and “built from the ground up” for Bets Malone, are particular stunners. Chris Luessman’s sound design is first-rate as are Suzanne Asebroek’s properties. Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager.

Sweeney Todd ends Kathy Brombacher’s 31-year tenure as Artistic Director of Moonlight Stage Productions on a high note indeed, and recent news that Glaudini himself will be assuming her post post-haste bodes well for the decade to come and beyond. If next season’s productions turn out to be even half as great as Glaudini’s Sweeney, Southern California musical theater fans are in for some truly memorable under-the-stars evenings in 2013.

*courtesy of Theatre Company, Upland, CA

Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
September 23, 2012
Photos: Ken Jacques

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