I’ve seen many productions of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, including the original on Broadway. Director Joe Calarco’s current one for Carnegie Mellon School of Drama’s equals the best. In some places, even surpasses many.
Calarco and musical director Thomas Douglas have exceptionally shaped the look, feel and sound of this Sondheim/Wheeler legend, giving it compelling staging, dark humor and professional quality acting, singing and orchestra playing.
Of course, they have great material to perform, but they do it so much justice that, in the second act, where this work could seem like too much repetition of previous musical themes,the performances make everything glow anew.
From the outset you see how Calarco has imaginatively staged everything from the shrill whistle causing consternation among assembled, presumably civilized people as a harsh metal cage descends containing Sweeney. Such invention endures until the bloody end when corpses rise and ghosts stare into the audience darkness.
It also quickly becomes clear that Calarco has found telling ways to have his cast find truth and depth not only in Sondheim’s words but also in unspoken reactions to what happens to them and around them.
The voices of nearly everyone in the cast soared with beauty and strength on the preview night, most admirably those of Denver Milord as Sweeney, Jessie Ryan Shelton as Joanna, Corey Cott as Toby, and Grey Henson as Beadle Bamford. Meanwhile the 13 piece orchestra, led by Douglas, came across with fine intonations and special colors in what sounded like remarkably good arrangements for such a small group.
Among so many fine performers, including those in the ensemble,Lucia Roderique stood out most with delightful warmth and charm as Mrs. Lovett, making her more innocent than edgy. Her performance of “By The Sea” gleamed with happy sunshine. And in "Have a Little Priest,” the byplay between her and Milord brimmed with appeal. They had a lot of fun.
Milord’s solid take on Sweeney, validly, looked more rational than crazy, albeit full of anger. Yet he seemed too young, especially contrasted with Roderique’s apparent maturity. That night Abdiel Vivancos did not suggest the right age for Judge Turpin. Also he lacked the appropriate sleaziness while his singing didn’t equal the rest of the cast’s impressive quality. On the other side of the age divide, Corey Cott’s Toby failed to convey the child-like,dim-wittedness right for the role.
It is important,though, to remember that these are University students. And,since so much of this worked so well, especially given Calarco’s brilliant direction, this tale deserves attending. And admiration.
And here I am at CMU, at this radio station, proud of such a connection, admiring again the University’s theatre department, long a source of many artists who’ve gone on to successful careers.
Sweeney Todd unfolds only through March 3rd at Philip Chosky Theater on the CMU campus in Oakland. 412/ 268-2407 www.drama.cmu.edu