Sunday, November 6, 2011

Theatre review: "Sweeney Todd" at University of Pittsburgh. Sunday 6th November 2011

It’s taken me some time to realize that what’s called the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre has actually, thoroughly become a training program for the University’s Theatre Arts students. Not so long ago excellent, professionally experienced actors on the faculty performed often and well enough to give some sense of an actual repertory company creating quality of potential widespread audience appeal. Clearly those days are gone. Gone too from the faculty are such talents as Elena Alexandratos, Doug Mertz and Sam Turich.

The present staff has now taken on a major project which certainly is good experience for students. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd features a wealth of magnificent music and exceptional lyrics by Sondheim set into Wheeler’s sordid melodrama like jewels scattered on dirty pavements. Making the best of this complex work, with its great songs, its dark story and its almost stock characters has always been a major challenge for even the best professional performers. Plus the score calls for a really good orchestra.

Sondheim’s melodies and intricate words don’t make things easy and, as the performance wore on during the first of the two Saturday evening productions, the singing and the orchestra’s playing continued to deteriorate while everybody did their best they could. The University Symphony Orchestra and the cast are led by music director Roger Zahab. He’s on the Pitt faculty.

Three other faculty members with professional experience interpret significant roles. One of them sings quite well, Richard Teaster as Sweeney. His acting comes across as serviceable as does that of Theo Allyn as Mrs. Lovett and Andy Narraj as Judge Turpin. The student acting looks competent as guided by director, the Theatre Arts Department’s Lisa Jackson-Schebetta who has come up with much that seems more utilitarian than insightful.

Family and friends of everyone involved in the production certainly remained a game and friendly audience. As for others, those unfamiliar with the show can get some idea of what it is supposed to be and get a glimmer of the songs’ inherent richness.

FYI: CMU students will try it themselves early next year. It will be interesting to see how they fare.

Sweeney Todd continues through November 13th at Charity Randall Theatre in The Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412-624-PLAY i.e :412 624- 7529 or

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