Bloody good musical macabredy fun in Alexander Showcase Theatre’s Sweeney Todd

ST_Web_Banner-685x269From the dark, seedy nooks and alleyways of the foggy set, and creepy opening organ music to its tragic ending, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes us from pathos to camp and back again in this story of one man’s singular and bloody drive for revenge gone horribly astray.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler and adapted by Christopher Bond, this particular trip to the dark side of Fleet Street comes courtesy of the folks at Alexander Showcase Theatre (ASL), directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson – running now at the Al Green Theatre. ASL’s Sweeney Todd features a cast of thousands, with a fine and energetic ensemble, and an outstanding core cast that includes some familiar faces and voices.

Sweeney Todd - Patrick & Sara
Patrick Brown & Sara Stahmer in Sweeney Todd – photo by John Meadows

As the titular infamous barber, Patrick Brown (back with a fright wig hair style last seen when he played the title role in ASL’s Young Frankenstein) gives a compelling portrayal of a man both frozen with grief and seething with rage, the layers of heartbreak and guilt showing beneath the bitterness and merciless sense of vengeance (so aptly illustrated in his ode to his collection of razors “My Friends”). As Todd’s landlady and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, Sara Stahmer bursts onto the stage, buxom, raucous and larger than life, taking the piss out of herself and her pie shop as she shouts from the rooftops about “The Worst Pies in London.” A woman with secrets and desperately in love with Todd, she’ll do anything to keep him with her as their individual needs and desires marry into an unspeakable arrangement.

Seth Mukamal is diabolically chilly and repugnant as the tyrannical and corrupt Judge Turpin, a covetous and nasty man with a hint of the romantic (“Pretty Women,” an ironic and suspenseful duet with Todd). Jeremy John Yorga gives a great turn as Turpin’s right hand man Beadle Bamford, a sinister soul with a flair for flattery and a taste for quaint old tunes (“Parlour Songs” with Mrs. Lovett and Tobias). As the secret, put-upon young lovers Anthony and Johanna, Joshua Wales and Alexandra Reed have adorable chemistry. Reed’s beautiful crystalline voice in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is the essence of Johanna’s innocence and longing, and Wales’ soaring, heart-felt “Johanna” offers a glimmer of hope for these bright-eyed young people – brief moments of optimism in an otherwise hopeless and harsh world. Nina Mason is endearingly cocky as the boy Tobias, a seasoned salesman and showman despite his youth – and a lad with a crush, intent on being Mrs. Lovett’s protector (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “Not While I’m Around”). As Todd’s professional rival, the pompous huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Darrell Hicks gives us a sly and slick charlatan with an amazing set of operatic pipes. And as the mysterious Beggar Woman, Sharon Zehavi gives a performance that is both bawdy fun and poignantly heartbreaking, skulking in the shadows, haunted by the vague memory of a former life (“Ah Miss” and “Wait”).

With shouts to set designers Peter Thorman (also Head Builder) and Beth Roher (also Head Scenic Artist), and costume designer Cheryl Lee for their evocative period creations. And to the ASL orchestra, a small but mighty force of fine musicians.

ASL’s Sweeney Todd is some bloody good musical macabredy fun with an excellent cast. Get on over to the Al Green Theatre for some darkly funny, thrilling good times.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Al Green Theatre until May 10; you can purchase advance tix online here.

Some sympathy for the devils in StageWorks Toronto’s Assassins

Assassins colourized alley“Attention must be paid!” This line from The Death of a Salesman is used as a major talking point by John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Not able to achieve recognition by regular means, there are some people who will go to extreme measures to be noticed, undertaking the death of another.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and directed by Lorraine Kimsa and Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr – takes us through a history of nine American assassins, from the 1860s to the 1970s.

Starting at a carnival in limbo, the Proprietor introduces eight of the assassins, arming each with a period appropriate handgun. Spinning the Wheel of Presidents, the Proprietor starts it all off with Booth in 1865 – the father of American presidential assassinations. Our trip through history is not a chronological one, and each outcome is interwoven with various scenes of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on their comic, bumbling road to their target Gerald Ford. And throughout, the Balladeer adds musical moral commentary on the situation at hand.

It’s not all dark comedy fun and games, though – the final assassination presented – the most affecting historically and personally for America – is nurtured to its horrible fruition by Booth and the others as they coax Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on John F. Kennedy from that Dallas Book Depository window.

Overall, an excellent cast, serving up some strong vocals – with some stand-outs. Luke Witt is very effective as the devilishly seductive Proprietor, while Hugh Ritchie is beautifully bright and soothing as the Balladeer – the devil and the angel on opposite shoulders of the collective assassins’ consciousness. Rich Burdett is remarkable as Booth, combining a striking, commanding presence and powerful vocals – and his scene with Oswald (played with great passion and inner conflict by Nicholas Arnold) is particularly chilling. Will van der Zyl delivers a hilarious and poignant performance as the crazy Santa Samuel Byck, in his tape recorded letters to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, outlining his plan to fly a 747 at Nixon in 1974. Laurie Hurst is lovably kooky as Moore and Christie Stewart is adorably deluded as Fromme – and Stewart does a lovely duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” with Mike Buchanan (nice work as the sensitive, but extremely troubled John Hinckley Jr.), a love song to their celebrity obsessions Charles Manson and Jodi Foster.

Collectively, the Ensemble (Anthony Botelho, Stephen Flett, Lauren Lazar, Suzanne Miller and Peter Nielson) give a lovely, moving performance of “Something Just Broke,” presenting first-hand citizen accounts of where they were when they heard about their president’s death, led by especially strong vocals by Lazar. And the assassins do a great job with “Another National Anthem” and the finale “Everybody’s Got the Right” – hymns of the disenfranchised and marginalized, left behind economically and in some cases dealing with mental health issues. Eerie in light of ongoing current events in the U.S., where everybody’s got the right to own a gun, but not everyone has access to mental health care or equal opportunity – and the deadly, tragic combination these can make.

With shouts to set designer Michelle Tracey, and lighting designers Karen Brown and Paul Harris, for the aesthetically pleasing, very effective multi-level creepy carnival in limbo, with great use of back-screen projection for the footage of the Kennedys making their way from the airport and through Dallas to that shot that was heard around the world. And the use of balloons on set to create the gunshot sounds was both clever and spooky.

Everyone needs to be loved and everyone needs to matter. But not everyone goes about it by deciding to kill the President of the United States. And rightly so. For a couple of hours, we hear their stories, their reasons – and perhaps we can offer up some sympathy. But in light of a deadly, final outcome, we can only feel so sorry for these poor devils.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins is a rousing, darkly entertaining and moving piece of musical cautionary storytelling. Attention must be paid.

Assassins continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 27.