Candlelight Pavilion takes its audiences on a considerably darker though no less entertaining journey than usual (with several menu items given a ghoulish though no less delicious twist) as the landmark Claremont dinner theater stages a Grade A Prime revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Weaver’s Sweeney Todd.

Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett Few are those who haven’t at least once “attended” the tale of Benjamin Barker (John LaLonde), the London barber convicted of a crime he did not commit and shipped off to Australia by a lecherous judge with designs on Barker’s wife Lucy.

Now, fifteen years later, Lucy is out of the picture and evil Judge Turpin (Sam Nisbett) has set his sights on Sweeney’s blonde and beautiful teenage daughter Johanna (Katie Roche).

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.

Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett When Sweeney stops in at the pie shop located downstairs from his onetime tonsorial parlor, the down-on-her-luck proprietress Mrs. Lovett (Debbie Prutsman) isn’t fooled by the new name, recognizing at once returning ex-con, for whom she has kept his shaving instruments intact, polished, and sharpened to a killing edge.

His razors restored to him, Sweeney now begins a murder 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.

Meanwhile, Sweeney and Anthony Hope (Caleb Shaw), 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 (Robert Hoyt).

Pirelli VS. Sweeney Todd Also figuring in The Tale Of Sweeney Todd are Italian-accented con-artist Adolfo Pirelli (Lance Smith), whose “Miracle Elixir” Sweeney exposes as the hoax it is before bumping him off; Tobias Ragg (Adam Trent), 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 (Jenny Moon Shaw), in whom Sweeney’s face sparks some distant glimmer of recognition.

Johanna 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 Chuck Ketter clearly knows his Sondheim, staging Sweeney Todd with dramatic flair and comic panache, sending characters out into the audience at times, and keeping a number of ensemble members perched on scaffolding on either side of the stage as constant witnesses to Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s murderous rampage.

Ketter has been aided and abetted in his directorial duties by an all-around topnotch cast and a pair of sensational leads.

1184917_582045948518801_1342449984_n LaLonde, whose performances in five productions last year (and direction of three) recently earned him a Scenie as Musical Theater Performer/Director Of The Year outdoes himself as The Demon Barber in as charismatic, gorgeously sung, and deeply felt a performance as he has given.

Prutsman, who played Mrs. Lovett for the first time at Musical Theater West a few years back, returns for her fourth “stab” at the role in a performance that has grown leaps and bounds, not only capturing Mrs. L’s cuteness and wackiness in a performance that would do Lucille Ball proud, but taking us into darker territory as well, thereby proving every bit the equal of her leading man, with whom she shares terrific stage chemistry in “A Little Priest” and “By The Sea.”

Anthony singing Johanna 11207_582046651852064_1528514993_n
As Anthony, Shaw continues to reveal himself one of Southern California’s rising stars, a leading man in the classic mode with acting chops and stellar vocals to match. Roche sings Johanna’s songs in a glorious soprano, making it a surprise to learn that the high school belter is only just now discovering this “legit” side of her voice. Trent does his best and most touching work to date as Tobias, Prutsman’s and his duet of “Not While I’m Around” as beautifully acted and sung as they get. A stunning Shaw, unrecognizable as this past summer’s Anna in The King And I, sings and acts the bloody hell out the Beggar Woman. Nisbett and Hoyt are both of them marvelously villainous (and marvelous vocalists), Smith makes for an amusingly flamboyant Pirelli, and Vil Towers is tall, gaunt, and ghoulish as Jonas Fogg.

God, that's good! Supporting these leading and featured players is a vocally and dramatically gifted ensemble made up of David Aldrete, Jackie Cox, Chelsea Rose Davenport, Patricia Eredia, Eric Michael Parker, Brandon Sanchez, Beda Spindola, Kelley Squires, Brian Vickery, Jennifer Wilcove, and Taras Wybaczynsky, Jr. (Young Faith Teuber has a brief but essential unbilled cameo.)

Citrus College’s John Patrick has designed a terrific set that not only features a particularly detailed revolving pie-&-barber-shop centerpiece (a Sweeney Todd must) but extends out on either side of the Candlelight proscenium for additional impact. Lighting designer Steve Giltner (and SteveGDesign) ups the drama with some bloody good lighting effects (and some added LED spots). Mela Hoyt-Heydon’s costumes, designed for Fullerton Civic Light Opera and coordinated by Jenny Wentworth, are all-around fabulous as well, as are Cliff & Kat Senior’s wigs.

Sweeney Todd Cast With choreographer Janet Renslow providing dramatic musical staging and music director Wendi Turk getting vocally inspired performances from leads and featured performers alike, all that separates this production from one at one of our major regional music theaters are its prerecorded orchestral tracks, though Candlelight’s top notch sound system and sound engineer Nick Galvan make prerecorded sound the next best thing to live.

Logan Grosjean is stage manager and Orlando Montes technical director.

In a season that has included a pair of musical revues (tributes to Tony Bennett and to Motown), a couple of Rodger & Hammerstein classics (The Sound Of Music and The King And I), the slightly racy Sweet Charity and the considerably racier The Full Monty, Sweeney Todd makes this quite possibly Candlelight Pavilion’s most eclectic—and overall satisfying—seasons ever. Kudos to owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, and artistic director LaLonde for taking chances, challenging their audiences, and delivering entertainment that makes a drive out to Claremont a must for musical theater lovers.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
September 15, 2013
Photos: Kirklyn Robinson

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