Sweeney Todd by Ray of Light almost a winner

Adam Scott Campbell as Sweeney Todd and Miss Sheldra as Nellie Lovett in Ray of Light's SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Eureka Theatre.

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Directed by Ben Randle. Music & Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim Book by: Hugh Wheeler. The Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. (at Battery), San Francisco, CA 94111. : www.roltheatre.com.

July 12 – August 11, 2012

Wikipedia states that the fictional character of Sweeney Todd began in the 1840s as a murderer in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’ play The String of Pearls and later made a new appearance in a melodrama Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. How prophetic that it began with the tag of being ‘dreadful’. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler did not assuage that tag with their musical of the same name that retells the dreadful story but they include enough humor to make it palatable (at least mostly palatable) to mature audiences.

Briefly, it is the story set in London during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when rural people flocked to the city, overwhelming its social structure creating a class of down and out denizens who lived by their wits in poverty. Benjamin Barker was unjustly convicted of a crime and sentenced to Botany Bay prison. Fifteen years later he escapes, returns to London to seek revenge on the unjust Judge who sentenced him, then raped his wife and stole his daughter. He assumes the name of Sweeney Todd, meets up with pie maker Mrs. Lovett, opens up a barber shop above her store and proceeds to cut the throats of his customers with his ever sharp razor and she (gasp!) bakes their remains into ‘tasty’ meat pies.

Since the smash Tony Award winning opening in 1979, the musical has had many interpretations. In 2001 a brilliant concert version was filmed with George Hearn (La Cage Aux Folles fame) as Sweeney Todd and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett.The most recent professional production in San Francisco was the John Doyle version with a ten person cast who played their own instruments in new orchestrations. San Francisco favorite Judy Kaye played Mrs. Lovett.

Ray of Light has decided to mount a dark version emphasizing the seedier underbelly of 1800s London including buckets of simulated blood but with appropriate touches of humor to break the tension of the drama. A criticism might be that director Randle has not allowed his excellent cast the opportunity to inject a sense of dread. This does not detract from the fine individual performances that are backed by an enthusiastic ensemble under the superb musical direction of Robbie Cowan who plays an onstage piano and still directs his on stage band. His cast handles Sondheim’s difficult cadences splendidly but many of the words never reach beyond the first rows. If you are not familiar with the words this will detract from your appreciation of Sondheim.

Adam Scott Campbell’s imposing stature and booming voice is ideal for the role of Sweeney Todd and projects a sense of inner turmoil that ameliorates the dastardly deeds. Michelle Jasso’s dramatic soprano voice projects the insanity written into the role as Beggar Woman. Miss Sheldra as the pivotal pie maker Nellie Lovett is pitch perfect in her humorous moments but misses the mark in a pivotal scene with Tobias (Kevin Singer) whom she imprisons in the notorious cellar. Young handsome Matthew Provencal is a lyrical sailor that the much put upon Johanna (Jessica Smith) cannot resist. . . nor can the audience.

Scenic designer Maya Linke’s grungy set rises to two stories using every inch of stage and is absolutely perfect for Ray of Lights concept for this production of Sweeney Todd that plays until August 11 on the Eureka Stage. Running time 160 minutes with 15 minute intermission.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of http://www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com/