Georja: After being introduced to POP’s (Pacific Opera Project) first season last year with the brilliant Cosi Fan Tutti, I couldn’t wait to see what Josh Shaw, director and designer of the shows, and his partner conductor Stephen Karr, had in store with the new production of Sweeney Todd at the Porticoes Theatre.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway award winning musical thriller, often performed on stage and masterfully adapted by Tim Burton in movie version. Originally based on a popular 19th century Victorian legend, it’s about a man determined to seek vengeance who teams up with Mrs. Lovett, and opens a barbershop in which he slits the throats of customers and has them baked into pies.
Georja: All in all, there are many admirable elements to this production: the talents of the two leads, Phil Meyer as Sweeney Todd and Amanda Carlin as Mrs. Lovett are adorable together. Meyer is a nonstop stoical face and Carlin has many endearing comic bits. The funny and dramatic first act ending song and dance duets, (partly without the orchestra) is a huge stand out and really gets the show moving. This is the first truly wickedly funny moment when Todd and Lovett decide on a plan to murder Todd’s enemies --and then gleefully broaden it to include all humanity – punishing the rich and relieving the poor of their misery. Then Lovett suggests they not let the corpses go to waste: re-cycle them into Lovett’s lagging meat pie enterprise. The higher ups will be lower down! And why stop at that! A little priest would be tasty! Real shepherds in shepherd’s pie! (Right after is intermission where real meat pies are available. Their odor wafts into the theatre beautifully at the beginning of act 2 where the whole London community on stage is scarfing them down.)
Gerald: Shaw’s stage set is resourceful and practical in the small proscenium space. In 19th century England, murderous-barber plays were so popular that many theaters were equipped with spring-loaded barber chairs that could fold back to disappear beneath the floorboards. Audiences delighted when the victims would suddenly pop back up, having been transformed to grisly, blood-soaked corpses through fast work by a makeup crew in the pit. Shaw neatly solves the logistics problem with a foldable hospital gurney and a children’s playground chute to whisk the victims from the barbershop loft to the basement of the meat-pie establishment below. The actors ascend to second-story playing areas by way of a wheeled industrial ladder (which could benefit from some side panels to integrate it with the scenery).
Georja: Being an audience member who needs creature comforts, I must say that my initial reactions to Act I may have partially to do with being placed near huge cold streams of air being blasted toward my head from the enormous and noisy air conditioning unit on the side wall. (Suggest you sit far from it).
More than 30 performers tread on and off a rather small stage, which often seems cluttered with little space for interesting choreography. (Is such a big chorus necessary in this small space?) Sweeney Todd is heavy on singing dialogue but on opening night much of it was not loudly enunciated enough to overcome the music from the energetic nine piece chamber orchestra on stage right (or perhaps the musicians were too loud?). A cacophony that didn’t quite gel. Team POP graciously moved us closer to the stage in the second act and seemed to have turned off the big blower. This improved the experience enormously although the acoustical balance in the theatre still needed tweaking and perhaps will be adjusted in future shows.
Gerald: In this production, bloody effects are notably absent. The only splattering, in fact, is shaving cream. When Pirelli (Alex Mendoza) sings his big aria as he engages Todd in a public shaving contest, he flings soap all over his fellow actors as well as some of the patrons in the front row. We wonder if they were warned? Georja and I recently reviewed the musical version of Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator, in which fake blood was flung liberally everywhere, and the audience members up front were given plastic raincoats to protect their clothes. I’m not suggesting that this production go to that extreme, but a major appeal of the genre – in Victorian times as now – would be the gruesome sight gags.
More highlights include Timothy Campbell as Anthony Hope who is sublime and his gorgeous voice is always heard and understood. His duet with Meyer in the second act is also a stand out. E. Scott Levin as Judge Turpin and Robert Norman as The Beadle also have a wonderful duet in Act II. Other stand outs included Eddie Sayles’ (as Tobias Ragg ) version of “Not While I’m Around” accompanied by Carlin, and Meyer’s “Pretty Women” with accompaniment by Levin. These two beautifully executed Sondheim masterpieces are thrilling to experience in the context of the original score. Alex Mendoza, with his wonderful silly supercilious performance of Adolfo Pirelli is perfect. (If only he weren’t sent down the chute so early!)
Gerald: Clearly, POP’s scheduling is meant to tie in with Halloween, so much so that they are encouraging the audience to come in costume for the October 31 performance at the Miles in Santa Monica.
Georja Umano is an actor and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos courtesy Pacific Opera Project
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Pacific Opera Project in association with Porticoes Theatre
2033 E. Washington Bl., Pasadena, CA
Tickets $30 general admission / $20 senior/student / $25 Santa Monica residents with ID at the Miles
Porticoes Theatre Performances
Oct 20, 26*, 27, 2012 at 8pm
Oct 21, 28 at 4pm
Miles Memorial Playhouse, Santa Monica, Performances (1130 Lincoln Blvd.)
Oct 31+, Nov 2* and 3 at 8pm
Nov 4 at 4pm
* Cover cast performance
+ Costumes encouraged for Halloween Night