Musicals at Richter

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Sweeney Reviews

Theater Review: Sweeney Todd

By Julie Stern

Newtown Bee

July 15, 2011

 

So what happens if you mix The Three Penny Opera, Les Mis, Dickensian London and Freddy Kruger?  You get a Stephen Sondheim “musical thriller” about Sweeney Todd, the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” being given a wonderful airing by Musicals at Richter.  I had never thought of myself as a fan of the jarring tale of the vengeful hairdresser who cuts the throats of his clients and leaves their corpses to be ground up into meat pies by his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, but after seeing this production under the deft directorial hand of E. Kyle Minor, I have a whole new appreciation for what the show can be.

Set in nineteenth century London, and based on a Victorian penny dreadful, Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted Christopher Bond’s 1970’s stage play, giving the murderous Sweeney a more sympathetic background. In his former life, a happily married young man, and father of a small daughter, Benjamin Barker drew the attention of the lecherous Judge Turpin, who had designs on Barker’s wife, Lucy.  Turpin had Barker arrested on false charges, and sentenced him to be transported as a convict to Australia- for life.  Then, with the connivance of the villainous Beadle, he “had his way” with the naïve young woman.

After fifteen years as a convict slave, Barker escapes and returns to London, bent on regaining his family. Using the alias of Sweeney Todd, he returns to his old shop, only to be informed by Mrs. Lovett that Lucy is dead- she poisoned herself out of grief and shame- and Johanna has been adopted by the evil Judge. However, Mrs. Lovett has managed to save his set of razors, and he is soon back in business as a barber, dreaming of the revenge he will take, as soon as he can get the unsuspecting judge in his chair.

Only when Pirelli, a former assistant, recognizes Todd as Barker and tries to blackmail him, does Todd turn into a serial killer. Mrs. Lovett, whose pie business has been floundering because she can’t afford any filling better than dirt and pussycats, sees the opportunity for economic development. With a  ready source of tender meat (they only use strangers and out-of-towners who won’t be missed) she opens a thriving tavern, aided by Pirelli’s half-witted assistant, the orphan-boy, Tobias Ragg.

The other thread of the plot revolves around Anthony Hope, an idealistic young sailor who had rescued Todd from drowning and helped him get back to London.  Anthony spies Johanna on the street and falls in love with her, provoking the jealous Turpin to lock her up in a madhouse.

What makes this MAR presentation so effective, beyond Sondheim’s more than two dozen musical numbers that recall the bitter intensity of Brecht and Weill, is the level of talent brought together in one production. Jeff Porper is remarkable as Sweeney Todd.  He has a marvelous singing voice, but more than that, it is his dramatic ability to flesh out (excuse the pun) the character; with every nuance of  facial expression as he interacts with Mrs. Lovett,  the mixture of bored preoccupation, curiosity, and dawning recognition make him a human being, rather than a monster.

Porper is evenly matched by the equally gifted MAR veteran, Priscilla Squiers, as Mrs. Lovett, whose greed and selfishness can be tempered by kinder maternal feelings toward Toby, and a growing domesticity toward Todd. As their enterprise prospers her appearance changes, improved by nicer clothing and the acquisition of a parlour harmonium.  One of the entertaining features of her role is her ability to mix raucous off key caterwauling with her true, serious singing voice.  When the two of them close out the first act with the hilarious duet “A Little Priest” (as in try a little priest, it’s leaner and simpler than chicken) it brings down the house.

Luke Garrison is splendid as the hapless Toby, confused about the disappearance of his old master, Pirelli, but soon devoted to Mrs. Lovett, who knits him a muffler and gives him work. “No one’s gonna hurt you,” he promises, in their duet, “Not While I’m Around.”

Marilyn Olsen manages to be both ominous and startling as a mysterious Beggar Woman who prowls into every scene, pleading for alms and when she doesn’t get them, flashing a scandalous leg at the appalled onlookers.

Chuck Stango makes Pirelli into a mixture of comic showman and sinister threat, whose overconfident machinations set the story in motion.

Patrick Spaulding and Ron M’Sadoques make great villains as the Judge and the Beadle, and Billy Hicks and Bonnie Byrnes offer a ray of hope at the end, in the person of the young lovers, who still have a chance at happiness.

What works really well is the evocation of the soot smeared, fog shrouded London, enhanced by the large “company” of characters. And, one of my favorite scenes (there are so many in this fast moving entertainment) is the representation of the madhouse, done as shadows behind a screen, when Anthony comes to rescue his beloved Johanna from the clutches of the mercenary Dr. Fogg, who pads his income by selling the hair of his patients to the best wigmakers in London.

You know that Sondheim is not Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Sweeney Todd is not a joyous extravaganza like Grease, but for adults- and mature kids- this is a wonderful entertainment, definitely worth going to.

            

Sweeney a hit at Richter!
by George Linkletter
Citizen News - New Fairfield /Sherman

No doubt there are several reasons why Musicals at Richter, the longest running outdoor theater in Fairfield County, is now in its 27th season. At least one is the continually improving quality of its performances.www.musicalsatrichter.org.

Strong acting and singing make a challenging production thoroughly entertaining

July 13, 2011

MAR’s best production yet (in the eyes of this reviewer) is Sweeney, now on stage at the comfortable, under-the-stars venue adjacent to the Richter Golf Course on Aunt Hack Road in Danbury.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it is formally called, is a tough musical to master. The story centers on revenge and murder. Several of the songs are intended to reach out and grab the audience by the lapels. Others showcase the vocal talents of the actors either alone or in demanding duets.

MAR’s Sweeney is up to this challenge on every level. Like other MAR efforts, Sweeney is visually and aurally rich. The full ensemble on stage exceeds two dozen and nearly 30 songs are in the production.

But the stage presence of the actors, and the effort and energy they put into the various musical interpretations, set this performance apart from others.

Jeff Porper, as Sweeney Todd, is masterful as the demon barber, seething from an injustice that ruined his family. He is determined to extract revenge, regardless of the cost in time or effort, and is alternately cunning and ruthless. He takes control of the stage from the moment he first appears and holds it throughout.

Priscilla Squiers is superb in her role as Mrs. Lovett, a woman wary of and yet, given her dire circumstances, capable of entering into partnership and falling in love with the deadly Sweeney. Her first solo, ‘The Worst Pies in London,’ is excellent and just a snapshot of what is to come later. Her duet with Sweeney, ‘A Little Priest,’ is devilishly well done.

Bonnie Byrnes, as Johanna the long-lost daughter of Sweeney, may possess the most beautiful voice of the cast. It is soothing, lyrical and yet powerful, too.

Ron M’Sadoques, as Beadle Bamford, an enforcer for the evil Judge Turpin, and Billy Hicks as Anthony Hope, an earnest young man in love with Johanna, are both exceedingly well cast and on top of their roles as opposite extremes on the good-to-evil spectrum.

Similarly, Marilyn Olsen as The Beggar Woman, Patrick Spaulding (of New Fairfield) as Judge Turpin, and Luke Garrison as Tobias Ragg, an orphan boy pressed into the unending service of grinding meat for meat pies, are superb in their roles. Chuck Stango and Marc Fanning, in their roles as Pirelli and Jonas Fogg, fit in perfectly, providing solid support.

Director E. Kyle Minor should be gratified that he has raised the bar so high with this MAR production. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and origainlly directed by Harold Prince, Sweeney premiered in Broadway in 1979 and collected 8 Tony Awards. In 2007 it was made into a film starring Johnny Depp.

Sweeney continues on July 15, 16, 17, and 22 and 23. Tickets are $23, $18 for seniors, $15 for student/child. Reduced rates are offered for Sunday night performances. Grounds open at 7:15pm for picnicking, curtain rises at 8:30pm. MAR is located at 100 Aunt Hack Road, just off exit 2 of I-84.

Snacks and chair rentals are available or bring your own lawn chairs. Mosquito repellent is recommended. The next production is Oliver. For information visit

‘Sweeney Todd’ is sharp as a barber’s knife

Written by Joanne G. Rochman
Wednesday, 13 July 2011 00:00 Hersam-Acorn

When a barber returns years after being sent to a penal colony on bogus charges, he is hell-bent on revenge. Unfortunately, he discovers too late that revenge is indeed a double-edged sword, or in this case, a double edged barber’s knife. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is special. Sondheim’s lyrics and music tell the story of two sets of lovers. The first set includes a barber who was deeply in love with his beautiful wife. However, a licentious judge racks up some phony charges against the barber, sending him to a penal colony, and then the judge has his way with the barber’s wife. The second love story focuses on the barber’s daughter and her young lover, who happens to be a friend of the barber. Directed by E. Kyle Minor, the Richter production features first-rate vocals. An outdoor community theater venue, Musicals at Richter manages to attract outstanding performers and large audiences who enjoy the shows, as well as spending summer nights under the stars. Jeff Porper plays the title role with equal amounts of brilliance and menace. Priscilla Squiers as Mrs. Lovett, brings out the humor of the story with a natural ease. Bonnie Byrnes portrays Johanna, and in spite of a ridiculous wig delivers some of the most outstanding vocals. Billy Hicks is Anthony, the young sailor who pursues her, and he epitomizes the goodness in the story as much as Johanna does. Director Minor has brought out the best storytelling aspect of this play with an extra dose of drama that enhances the production. Dan Koch’s exceptionally fine musical direction was in sync with the director and heightened the dark and dramatic moments. While the production is sharp, there are a few nicks in it. The set works like a charm, but the central two-story shop, which cleverly becomes several different locales, is so cumbersome that the stage hands and ensemble members who moved it about, struggled with it so much that it became a distraction. The production plays through July 23. Box office: 203-748-6873.

 

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