Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
So begins Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s most operatic musical program. How operatic? Well, the last major production in the Bay Area was in 2015 by the San Francisco Opera – which is my way of saying that it’s one helluva challenge for any community theatre to take on this show. So pre-review props to the Raven Players in Healdsburg for taking their shot.
The results, however, are decidedly mixed, with some elements of the Carl Hamilton-directed show executed superbly and others not so well. Inconsistencies in performance and in the technical design of the show end up overpowering the fine work done in other areas, the upshot being an overall sense of disappointment with this production.
With a book by Hugh Wheeler, Sondheim musically tells the tale of an exiled barber who, after 15 years of separation from his wife and daughter, returns to London to find his wife dead and his daughter in the clutches of the Judge responsible for his banishment. Joining forces with the proprietress of London’s worst bakery, they soon concoct a plan for settling scores that involves the use of a straight razor and a meat grinder.
Without a doubt, the most successful element at work in this gruesome tale of revenge is the Sweeney Todd Orchestra. I have long been impressed with the quality of musical work done in Raven productions and Musical Director Lucas Sherman and his ten-piece orchestra continue that tradition. The show tone is set immediately by the foreboding notes of an organ prelude followed by the introductory “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” That sense of doom and gloom is soon joined by the darkest of humor culminating in the Act I finale of “A Little Priest”. Over thirty musical numbers are performed, full of Sondheim’s wickedest lyrics and all given their bloody due by the talented musicians.
The quality of performances varies greatly, from Tika Moon’s bawdy, blowsy and gloriously grotesque Mrs. Lovett to Matthew Witthaus’s curiously muted Sweeney Todd. Witthaus can usually be relied upon to bring force and passion to a role, and I can only think that a lack of experience as a musical lead (this is his first lead major musical role) led to more of a focus on singing and less to the development of a full-throated character. In the end, neither provide the fervor one expects from this kind of character in this kind of show.
With regard to the other characters, the young second leads (Jackson Phillips, Emily Doyle) do very well with their vocals and characters and Garet Waterhouse brings appropriate gravitas and menace to his role as the villainous Judge Turpin. As the Judge’s loathsome minion, Robert Finney simply has not developed his talent to the point of being able to credibly project a sense of threat or intimidation. Wonderfully gifted as a singer, he has yet to receive sufficient training or strong enough direction to allow him to convincingly play a character like the cretinous Beadle Bamford.
The ensemble work is strong and pays off particularly well when they take the stage for the numerous reprises of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and fill the cavernous Raven auditorium with their voices.
My biggest disappointment was with the technical design of this show. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the Raven stage is not an easy one on which to work. Limited backstage and wing space really restricts what you can do, BUT it’s a challenge that set designer Darius Hamilton-Smith and Lighting Designer Robin DeLuca have conquered twice before. Their design work on the Raven’s 2013 production of A Streetcar Named Desire and 2015 production of Of Mice and Men were original, creative, visually entrancing and served their stories well with the utilization of color and shadow. Their work on Sweeney is surprisingly mundane, with nothing particularly creative or original to be found with the exception of a dash of colorful fabric streaming down from the rafters towards the end of Act II. It’s a textbook case of ‘too little, too late’. The stage is almost entirely covered by a behemoth of a set which, while providing different levels for the action to take place, limited the amount of action that could be taken at any one place and severely restricted the already limited choreography.
Last year, I took director Hamilton to task for utilizing a minimalist approach in a production of Witness for the Prosecution that I felt stripped it of its theatricality. This show is where a minimalist approach, at least in set design, might have helped. Perhaps that would have eliminated the need to stage two crucial scenes behind the set (ostensibly in the ‘basement’) and have the actors yell their lines through the set walls.
My seatmate at the performance concluded that, while she fully enjoyed the musical portion of the production, it might have been a better overall show had they taken more of a “staged concert” approach. Perhaps, but as a fully staged theatrical production and despite the fine work done by many, the Raven Players Sweeney Todd just misses the cut.
“Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” Music and Lyrics by Steven Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, plays at the Raven Performing Arts Theater, Healdsburg, through Sunday, October 9, 2016. Information: raventheater.org
Director: Carl Hamilton. Musical Director: Lucas Sherman. Scenic Design: Darius Hamilton-Smith. Lighting Design: Robin DeLuca. Sound Design: Tom Leukens. Costumer: Jennifer Albin. Choreographer: Anthony Gianchetta. Photography: Ray Mabry.
Sweeney Todd: Matthew T. Witthaus. Mrs. Lovett: Tika Moon. Anthony Hope: Jackson Phillips. Johanna: Emily Doyle. Tobias Ragg: Troy Thomas Evans. Judge Turpin: Garet Waterhouse. The Beadle: Robert Finney. Beggar Woman: Kelly Hitman. Adolfo Pirelli: Craig Bainbridge. Jonas Fogg: Joe Gellura. Ensemble: Carolyn Cole-Schweizer, Kimberly Colisch, Athena Gundlach, Arabella Harrison, Michael Hunter, Ariana LaMark, Whitney Lawson, Christine Naber, Tory Rotlisberger, Jolie Santos-Ramsey, George Schweitzer, Rebecca West.
Conductor/Piano: Lucas Sherman. Violin: Felicia McFall. Cello: Carol Vines. Clarinet/Bass Clarinet: Brendan Buss. Oboe/English Horn: Claire Engan. French Horn: Jeanne Porter. Trumpet: Kelly Hunt. Trombone: Conrad Wallace. Bass: Laurie Bilbro. Percussion: Erica Bergeron.