Razor sharp “Sweeney Todd” at Barrington Stage

Jeff McCarthy and the Sweeney Todd company at Barrington Stage Co.

Last weekend to see Jeff McCarthy and Harriet Harris Slash and Burn as Demon Barber and Mrs. Lovett

Jeff McCarthy and Harriet Harris in Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage, directed by Julianne Boyd. Kevin Sprague photos.

Review: Swirling action, stunning singing and a glorious orchestra in the pit make Sweeney Todd more than just an evening of great theatre. It is grand, gory opera too. In the production staged by Julianne Boyd at Barrington Stage Company, we find an exceptional cast giving their all to a fresh, new, yet faithful rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musical.

Each time Sweeney raises his razor high, it soon “drips rubies” and you can hear the audience chortle at the horror and the beauty of this grand guignol tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Jeff McCarthy is simply the best Sweeney since George Hearn who sang the title role during the run and initial tour of the original production. McCarthy has now made the role his as he throws himself into the story with a depth of energy and emotion I haven’t seen on stage in years. His acting, his singing, his timing are wonders to behold.

Aiding and abetting his gruesome slaughter of the innocent and guilty is the peculiar Mrs. Lovett, played by the wonderful Harriet Harris. Together McCarthy and Harris deliver a classic evening of stunning musical theatre.

Christianne Tisdale as the beggar woman in Sweeney Todd.

Todd sets up his barber shop over her failing pie shop, and together they conspire to keep a steady supply of freshly shaved meat flowing to her ovens.

Musicals are about music, and as the theatre filled with the unique sounds of Stephen Sondheim, it was possible to lose oneself and enter another, earlier and darker world.  That I was able to suspend disbelief so easily surprised me. On first hearing of this show 35 years ago, like many others I was perplexed.  The subject matter, the score, the staging – they all were innovations. Whistles blow, choruses materialized and melted away, and there are leitmotifs, just like in Wagner.

Shonn Wiley as Anthony, the sailor who rescued Todd and brought him to London falls in love with Todd’s daughter.  Sarah Stevens who plays the role of Joanna and Wiley make an exceptionally lovely – and pure – couple so it is only fitting they become two of the three survivors of the Act II massacre. Wiley has a gorgeous baritone, and was Dance Captain and choreographer.  Stevens brought great beauty to the part of Joanna with a well trained, if not overly full voice. It came the closest to what people think of as an operatic voice.

Shonn Wiley (l) and Ed Dixon (r) in Sweeney Todd. Kevin Sprague Photos.

Ed Dixon as Judge Turpin was both picture and pitch perfect. His mastery of that role combined with a resonant voice lit up the lyrics of “Pretty Women”. Timothy Shew as Beadle Bamford was equally convincing. As the beggar woman, Christianne Tisdale was much busier than her role normally is, and that added another dimension to the part. Director Boyd must share credit with Tisdale for giving the role a clearer depth and meaning.

As Tobias Ragg, Zachary Clause acquitted himself well, but was physically a bit too old for the part. Branch Woodman took on the role of Pirelli, and happily did not overdo it as is often seen in other productions.  It is too easy to make him a caricature rather than a believable part of the narrative.

The set by Wilson Chin deserves special mention simply because it reflects much of the original production’s uniqueness. Granted that one had much fancier lifts to raise and lower the back catwalks, but the truss-work conveyed the period nicely. The mobile pieces were likewise effective, if a bit spartan. What they did not get right is the barber’s chair. It looked like a jerry rigged office side chair, and completely out of keeping with 19th Century London. It certainly didn’t look like a chair to sing a whole song of praise to. Here it is apparent that throats were not the only thing getting cut, expenses were too. But damn, people. It is the focal point of the whole show. What happens in that chair is what brings half the audience to see Sweeney Todd (the half that doesn’t know Stephen Sondheim from Jerry Herman.)

"More, more, more!" You can say that again.

Speaking of budgets, one important area that was not skimped on was the pit band, and for that we must thank the Board and Boyd who must have thought long and hard about nine musicians in the orchestra pit. Besides the expense for them is the loss of two front rows of revenue-producing seating when the pit is used.

Boyd turned this loss into a gain in stage size. The depth behind the proscenium is about 24′ and with the orchestra pit in use, a stage extension is possible of perhaps another 8′ for a total 32′ deep playing area that is a third larger than normal.

The result of all this is not only a fuller, more exciting musical sound under Music Director Darren Cohen, but an intimacy with the audiences since much of Sweeney Todd takes place downstage, at the proscenium or even closer to the audience.

Harriet Harris (l) and Zachary Clause in Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage.

Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting was exceptional.  During the final scene in the cook house he turned the back brick wall a most sinister and glistening blood red. Using specials in the mad scenes, including Sweeney Todd’s breakdown amplified their power. However some of the instruments were not masked and there were times too much light spilled over to the audience.

The costumes for Sweeney Todd don’t allow a costume designer to show off, but Jen Moeller did a great job of making the characters clothes meld with the time period. During the dance scene at Judge Turpin’s house, there was a little showiness. Yes, people noticed.

This Sweeney Todd earns a damned fine critic’s report card, almost all A’s and a couple of B’s. That, to me, puts it on the 2010 Berkshire honor roll. Without hesitation it is recommended as a must-see.

Jeff McCarthy and the Sweeney Todd company at Barrington Stage Co.

Barrington Stage Company presents Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, A Musical Thriller with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, From an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Scenic Designer – Wilson Chin, Costume Designer – Jen Moeller, Lighting Designer – Philip S. Rosenberg, Sound Designer – Ed Chapman. Musical Direction by Darren Cohen, Choreography by Shonn Wiley, Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Cast: Anthony Hope – Shonn Wiley, Sweeney Todd – Jeff McCarthy, Beggar Woman – Christianne Tisdale, Mrs. Lovett – Harriet Harris, Judge Turpin – Ed Dixon, Beadle Bamford – Timothy Shew, Johanna Barker – Sarah Stevens, Tobais Ragg – Zachary Clause, Pirelli – Branch Woodman, Jonas Fogg – Allan Snyder.
On the Main Stage, Union Street, Pittsfield, June 17 – July 17. About 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission.

One thought on “Razor sharp “Sweeney Todd” at Barrington Stage

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