Like the Little Engine That Could, USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory’s self-proclaimed “innovative musical theater, for students, by students,” undertakes its most daunting challenge to date, Stephen Sondheim’s epic Sweeney Todd, and comes out with yet another winner.

16048_10151167597427098_950473784_n 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 (Cole Cuomo), 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 (Matthew McFarland) has set his sights on the barber’s beautiful blonde daughter Johanna (Arielle Fishman).

A chance meeting with Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Tory Stolper), the maker of “the worst pies in London,” leads first to the restoration of Sweeney’s razors, then to the devilishly inspired idea of stuffing said pies with human meat.

In no time at all, Mrs. Lovett is running the most popular pie shop in London, with the rechristened “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.

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 (Dor Gvirtsman), 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 (Steven Miller).

Also figuring in The Tale Of Sweeney Todd are Italian-accented con-artist Adolfo Pirelli (Richy Storrs), whose “Miracle Elixir” Sweeney exposes as the hoax it is before bumping him off; Tobias Ragg (David Nicholson), 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 (Amanda Griffiths), 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 “City On Fire!” and “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd” and that most epitomize the demon barber’s black, black heart.

It’s with the latter ballad that director D.J. Blickenstaff and his talented young ensemble open the show with a bang, making it clear from the get-go that this will be no run-of-the-mill Sweeney (or run-of-the-mill school production for that matter).

Blickenstaff’s first inspiration is to have these citizens of London looking and acting like escapees from an insane asylum, perched like birds of prey above and around the action at various times as witnesses to Sweeney’s tale. Another imaginative Blickenstaff moment is the flashback sequence in which Sweeney recalls the rape of his beloved Lucy, a scene which involves virtually the entire cast.

Inspirations like these make director Blickenstaff (the USC junior who previously helmed MTR’s sensational The Drowsy Chaperone), most definitely one to watch.

Directorial talents aside, the biggest hurdle in staging Sweeney Todd with an all-student cast is simply this: How to find performers in their early 20s who can do justice to Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, roles made famous on Broadway by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury?

Fortunately, in Cuomo and Tolper, MTR has come up with just about as perfect a twosome as any major Southern California theater school or audience could hope for.

With his darkly masculine presence and big rich baritone, Cuomo (the star of such diverse USC fare as City Of Angels, The Drowsy Chaperone, A Little Night Music, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) has the charisma, the gravitas, the acting chops, and the pipes to make us believe that he is indeed the Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

Stolper, Cuomo’s costar in the latter two USC productions, is quite simply a revelation as Mrs. Lovett, giving us as deliciously ditzy a Nellie as anyone could hope for, acting the part with gleeful abandon and singing those difficult Sondheim melodies to perfection, beginning with a hilariously over-the-top “The Worst Pies In London.”

Together, Cuomo and Stolper ignite a whole lot of sparks, and if Mrs. Lovett’s mad attraction for Sweeney doesn’t provoke a reciprocal response from the object of her affections, it’s not for any lack of appeal on Stolper’s part. Needless to say, Cuomo’s and Stolper’s “A Little Priest” and “By The Sea” are the duet showstoppers they’re intended to be.

Supporting players range from very good to excellent, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that many are USC students not majoring in drama but doing this extracurricular sideline for simple love of the art.

A prime example is architecture student Nicholson, whose cute-as-a-button Tobias is everything you’d want a Toby to be, and a terrific sidekick to con man Adolofo Pirelli, an outrageously funny turn by Richy Storrs, who only does musicals “as a sideline.” Both vocalize to perfection in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixier,” and Nicholson’s duet of “Not While I’m Around” opposite Stolper is an Act Two highlight.

Fishman’s Johanna is one of the best I’ve seen, a petite blonde Dresden doll with an exquisite soprano shown off to fine advantage in “Green Finch And Linnet Bird.” Gvirtsman makes for a handsome, earnest Anthony with tenor pipes that are best in their lower register. Miller gives us a suitably imposing Beadle, Kevin Herald impresses in his brief cameo as Jonas Fogg, and as for Griffiths, not only does she bring the mysterious Beggar Woman to both pathetic and bawdy life, she’s got one amazing voice as well. Last but not least is MTR’s secret weapon McFarland, who not only choreographs but reinvents the role of Judge Turpin in vampiric mode, the better to fit his youthful looks, boyish cuteness turned scarily creepy here, and never more so than in the self-flagellatory “Mea Culpa.”

Kudos too to the very young, very committed ensemble made up of Jenna Bamberger, Alica Benning, Hajin Cho, Turner Frankosky, Frank Hobbs, Kimberlee Holland, Erik Hu, Matthew Solomon, Caroline Spinola, Judd Yort, and Jennifer Zahlit, who harmonize marvelously under the musical direction of Madeline Myers and execute McFarland’s edgy, quirky dance moves like pros in numbers like “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd, “God, That’s Good!,” and “City On Fire.”

Victoria Tam’s darkly dramatic scenic design makes imaginative, multi-level use of the blackbox Massman Theatre stage, and yes, Sweeney’s victims do exit his upstairs barber chair in as swift a fall down and out of sight as any Sweeney fan could wish for. Costume designers Hannah Kim and Marly Hall get top marks for some inspired outfits, with special snaps for Berfin Adaman’s spooky makeup and hair designs. Madigan Stehly’s lighting design is dramatic and professional. Kelsi Halverson’s sound design is first-class as well. The occasional miming of pies and the absence of blood when throats are slit are the only design flaws.

Also deserving of mention are stage manager, Alice Pollitt, producers Brandon Baer and Blickenstaff, technical director Stehly, special effects designer/assistant technical director Alex Underwood, assistant directors Vicki Pearlman and Adrian Ferro, assistant musical director Chelsea Walker, assistant stage manager Kelly Merritt, light board operator and assistant lighting designer David Hernandez, orchestra coordinator Anthony Lucca, poster designer/photographer Jennifer Wen, assistant makeup and hair Sarah May Scotti, and crew Alyssa Breda and Christina Lelon.

A six-piece live orchestra provide mostly excellent backup, conducted by Myers (piano) and featuring Austin Chanu (clarinet, flute), Dan Fox (trumpet), Ari Giancaterino (bass), Greg Hartman (percussion, auxiliary keyboard), and Sasha Spala (flute).

That all five remaining performances (over the next three days) are sold-out is a tribute to the reputation for excellence Musical Theatre Repertory has developed over the past seven years. Sweeney Todd is student-created musical theater at its best, and despite MTR’s slogan, it is most definitely not just “for students” but for musical theater aficionados and Sondheim lovers of all ages.

Massman Theatre at USC.

–Steven Stanley
January 24, 2013

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