Review: Not Your Father’s SWEENEY TODD

A Musical Thriller
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Mathew Wright & Eric Ankrim
Through July 1 2017
at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery
4711 California Ave SW
Seattle, WA 98116

Forget everything you know about SWEENEY TODD.
Well, not everything. If you know it’s got amazing melodies, some delicate and some bombastic, remember that. If you know its history as nineteenth-century serialized fiction and play, and 1970s melodrama, remember that.
But if you’re accustomed to thinking of it as a great big show with great big over-the-top performances, or of some of the characters as cartoons, this production will push you hard to let go of those preconceptions.
The ArtsWest SWEENEY is, in the directorial hands of Mat Wright (ArtsWest’s Artistic Director) and Eric Ankrim, is everything ArtsWest is: intimate, audacious, richly creative, and consistently excellent.
 The first thing you notice as you enter the theater is the set: not decorated in Victorian style, simple, with a piano, some wooden chairs, and a man (who we correctly assume is Sweeney Todd) in an armchair, facing upstage. And a radio, playing a testimony of rescue of a child bride. It’s anachronistic, but the tone it sets is more timeless than modern, as is the costuming we will see that comes from a variety of periods.
Then the rest of the company enters, and we discover another thing you won’t find in this production: a large chorus. All of the performers double as significant characters, ensemble, and chorus.  (While there will be a few points at which this requires a little belief in theater magic, as actors die as one character and immediately move into a conversation as another, the intimacy and versatility pays off not just economically and logistically, but dramatically as well.)
The closeness of the action to the audience affords the cast the chance to bring something radical to this production: smallness. Large-scale productions run at peak volume and peak emotion, with little dynamic variation. Instead, here we have a production that can reveal small and delicate moments that have never been clear in at least half a dozen versions I’ve seen, and make what often seem weak bits strong. (Without giving away too much, the tight focus makes one of the Beggar Woman’s last scenes crystal clear and poignant in a way I’ve never experienced; and by giving us clear access to Sweeney’s near-static face during Mrs. Lovett’s rhapsodic “By the Sea” – except for the one point at which he is finally engaged, that is – what is often predatory and cartoonish is revealing of depth.)
You may notice a couple of scenes cut, by the way – one comic, one decidedly not – that you’ve seen in other productions, or heard on the original cast recording. I was surprised to discover that those cuts were actually made in the original Broadway run.
Before mentioning any individual performance, I want to call out the amazing consistency of the company: this is the most end-to-end spectacularly sung SWEENEY I’ve ever heard. A program insert calls out the contribution of casting associate (and, at other times, actor/singer/cellist/multi-instrumentalist/librettist/songwriter) Justin Huertas, and the achievement is awesome, a terrific example of everything diverse casting can and should be.  It is a magnificent cast with one’s eyes closed. And even better with them open, in both meanings.
Ben Gonio as Todd and Corinna Lapid Munter as Lovett have a lot of the show to carry, and they do so wonderfully, hitting all of the usual dramatic and comedic notes and dozens of new, more subtle ones. (It’s delightful to experience “A Little Priest” with an audience to whom the jokes are new, especially when performers are so in sync – and the rhyming challenge and its final turn lands especially well with the performers’ chemistry.)
As the young lovers Anthony and Joanna, Jordan Iosua Taylor and Emilie Hanson bring light and energy that is inevitably challenged, betrayed, and destroyed. Taylor has recently been seen in roles both fiercely physical and morally gray-to-black, in Sidecountry’s MURDER BALLAD and ArtsWest’s (and Ankrim’s) AMERICAN IDIOT, but here he starts in a much purer place. And Hanson, still a prep school junior, is perfect for Joanna’s songbird delicacy.
Many actors playing Tobias have trouble finding the line between childlike and childish, and while they sing the role beautifully, they can start from a place that makes where the character ends up much less tragic. John Han, whose Teddy in (ArtsWest’s and Ankrim’s) PETER AND THE STARCATCHER was comically dim, here hits all of the right notes both dramatically and vocally.
The villainous roles of Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford are often cartoons of abuse, of sex and law. Vocally, Turpin snarls while the Beadle coos effetely. Here, Jeff Church’s rich bass cuts the moustache-twirling bravado and adds a richer sense of danger to Turpin, and Jon Lee-Vroman lets the contradiction of the Beadle’s love of his daughter – a sharp contrast to Turpin’s feeling for Joanna – and his corruption play out clearly, and his voice never seems forced.
The role of Pirelli is by design a cartoon. Nick Watson, who has (in MURDER BALLAD, BIG FISH, and ArtsWest’s VIOLET) played roles of richness and subtlety, here faces a challenge somewhat different from the others: to be over-the-top yet not feel out of scale with the rest, and still surprise audiences with where he ends. Not only does he pull it off, but he does so with phenomenal vocal range.
Jimmie Herrod’s clear, high voice is a thing of wonder and is as perfect here for the Beggar Woman as it was as Extraordinary Girl in AMERICAN IDIOT. It’s his acting in the tight, tender, painful later scene, though, that is a revelation here.
Leslie Wisdom fills out the company with a fine turn as asylum keeper Fogg and serves up ensemble fierceness as well.
Another aspect of this production that is atypical is the music – where big productions feature big orchestras, here music director Matt Hohensee and associate Steven Tran more than support the voices with off-stage piano and keyboard.
Many aspects of this SWEENEY are new and surprising. No matter how well you know the work, you will experience it in a new way and find new richness in it. What is totally unsurprising, though, is how terrific it is; from ArtsWest, from the directors, and from the members of the cast, I’ve come to expect that. And that’s something we’re not going to forget.

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