Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Theater review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at KD Studio ... - Pegasus News

Despite some great voices and acting, this Sweeney Todd is not killer.

Sweeney Todd. The name itself strikes fear and anxiety into the minds of those who recognize it. Level Ground Arts stuffed Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece into the KD Studio Theatre for three weeks in August. For me, Level Ground Arts is hit or miss in their productions, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is more of a miss than a hit.

Andi Allen and Shane Strawbridge star as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd in Level Ground Arts' production.

J. Mathew Butler

Andi Allen and Shane Strawbridge star as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd in Level Ground Arts' production.

Walking into the KD Studio Theatre, the audience is greeted by a stark black and white set design by John De Los Santos, complete with a chess board floor pattern.

It’s easy to assume this concept, continued in the Carver Upton’s Victorian costume design, is intentionally chosen to highlight the forthcoming blood effects Sweeney Todd is famous for. Many simple elements are combined into a wonderfully utilitarian design. The simplest pieces being tables and chairs, constantly rearranged by cast members as scenes changed, they work exquisitely to uphold the simple story-telling concept.

Level Ground Arts did have a significant obstacle with this night’s performance, however. Prior to show time an electrical problem rendered a platform, covering approximately 1/3 of their stage area, unusable. This certainly had a negative affect on the choreography of the entire show. I wonder if it also played a part in the lack of focus by the performers.

Looking over the cast list for Level Ground Arts’ production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, you see many recognizable and highly talented individuals. All of whom turn in fine performances. However, there are several instances of actors forgetting or dropping their lines. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt and say it was the pressure of dealing with the difficulty of Sondheim’s score as well as new staging on short notice but I can not say whether the problems stemmed from being under prepared as well.

Matthew Butler turns in a good performance as Beadle Bamford except that the role, possibly the most vocally difficult male role in the show, is well outside of his vocal range. His characterization is great but his singing is disappointing, particularly in the finale of “Ladies in their Sensitivities,” which should climax in some surprising high notes but does not because of Butler’s inability to reach them.

Delynda Moravec and Michael Moore are absolutely wonderful as The Beggar Woman and Adolpho Pirelli, respectively. Moore plays the one zany, comic character in the play to near perfection, arrogantly strutting across the stage and employing many physical exaggerations to bring Pirelli to life. Moravec plays the dirty, poor, crazed woman with a secret. The role almost seems too easy for someone of Moravec’s skill. She makes acting look easy and natural.

The romantic duo of Johanna and Anthony are played by Monica Music and Max Swarner, both of whom have excellent voices that are fantastically highlighted in Sweeney Todd. Their lack of stage time together hinders any sense of romantic chemistry between the two. The few scenes they share scarcely cause sparks to fly.

Andi Allen completely revels in her role as Mrs. Lovett, the ruthless pie shop owner. Her comedic timing in delivering Mrs. Lovett’s witty lines is exceptional. Also, she handles one of the more difficult songs in the show, “Worst Pies in London,” with relative ease, and her voice matches in fabulous harmony with Shane Strawbridge’s.

With a strong, clear voice and an imposing figure, Shane Strawbridge plays Sweeney Todd. Although I don’t feel as if I would fear for my life if I met him in a darkened ally, Strawbridge is believable as a vengeful serial killer. His performance relies on a gentle, quiet demeanor punctuated by harsh and sudden outbursts, as in “Epiphany” near the end of Act I.

An unusable platform was not the only technical difficulty standing in Level Ground Arts’ way. An annoying buzzing from a malfunctioning speaker plagued the first act, nearly drowning out the conversations on stage. Thankfully this was remedied before Act II began. Also, the lighting is wonderful. Many eerie effects are created with color and light focus, heightening the scenes.

The biggest drawback of Level Ground Arts’ production of Sweeney Todd is the lack of intensity in the performance overall. Sweeney Todd is a dark, disturbing play. Yet, there is very little creepiness inherent in this production. It has exceptionally haunting moments, like Mark Hawkins’ performance of Judge Turpin’s “Mea Culpa.” But never does the audience fully engage in the horror and emotion of the play.

Also, if the black & white design is to highlight the blood effects, Level Ground Arts needs to use greater blood effects in the show. I’m not a fan of excessive gore.

However, Sweeney Todd is a show that requires blood to literally flow. This production has an almost minimal amount of bloody effects, further inhibiting the horror at the core of the story.

Overall, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Level Ground Arts is a fine production with a few minor hiccups that add up. I would love to attend another performance if/after they have their electrical issue, impeding their staging, cleared up to get the full experience of the show. It is worth seeing if you truly love musicals, as the singing and music are great. Unfortunately, this production of Sweeney Todd does not stand on its own merit.

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