MIDVALE — Few modern musicals can boast the almost cult status that Sweeney Todd has. I have been a fan of the show since I first saw the recording of the 1982 touring company with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. Then there was the first time I saw a live production around the same time at the long-since closed Theater 138, a dank but unique little theater space that had just the right ambiance for Sweeney. So I was excited, although cautious, to see the current production of Sweeney Todd at Midvale Main Street Theatre. Community theatre productions can be very hit-and-miss when tackling something of the stature of Stephen Sondheim musicals.
Sondheim is one of the true musical geniuses of the modern stage. His music is dense, wordy and intricate. It’s not something that one can just pick up and sing. It takes hours of rehearsal and hard work to really do it justice. And Sweeney is perhaps his most complex score. It is almost operatic in scope, but defined by its meaty, almost muscular, Broadway edge. It requires singers of considerable skill to do it justice, but also singers who can act. I won’t go into the plot here since most people know it and save some shock for those who don’t. Midvale Main Street Theatre came so very close, but missed the mark of a great production.
I need to give a little explanation of how I approach reviewing shows. I try to judge each show on its own merits and will judge a professional production (such as PTC or SLAC) differently than I do a community theater production. They have different resources and therefore must be judged on differing scales. Having said that, I have seen some pretty atrocious professional productions and some truly stunning community theater productions. So that brings us to the current production of Sweeney in Midvale.
Midvale has no curtain and no real proscenium. The stage is exposed from the start. And the set design team of Johnny Schmidt, Russ McBride, Ryan Honeycutt, Joe Dutson and Kassidy Cleland did a wonderful job. It is not a large stage and the design does exactly what is needed in this small space for this production. The main unit can be rotated to be the pie shop, the parlor, Pirelli’s caravan and the bake house. It was well thought out and well executed. The costume mistress/coordinator Jan Harris did a wonderful job of costuming the show. Nothing seemed out of context and all the costumes worked well together. The one exception was the monstrous wig that poor Johanna was saddled with. It was the biggest wig I’ve ever seen and very distracting.
The leads, by and large, were well suited to the parts they played and did very well in their characters. Jim Dale as Sweeney Todd was exceptional. He has a fine strong voice and tone that fit the character well. He was especially fine in “Pretty Women” and “A Little Priest.” Eve Speer was fantastic as Mrs. Lovett. She had a believable accent and the right mix of humor and deceit to make her character quite endearing. She was marvelous in “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea.” Corey Wilkey was very strong as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who falls in love with Johanna. He has both power and an ease to his voice that made his big number “Johanna” one of the highlights of the night. Russ McBride was very good as Judge Turpin. In his bio he states that he is not much of a singer, but he had no problems opening night carrying his own on “Pretty Women.”
I wish I could say as much for the rest of the leads. Ashlee Brereton as Johanna didn’t seem to get the gravity of the character’s situation, which is unfortunate because she has a lovely voice that fits the music for Johanna. Her big song, however, was missing that connection. “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is a song that represents her own captivity as she sings to caged birds. This version was more like just a pretty song she sings. The remaining leads all did well, but suffered at one time or another from getting lost in the words. Elise Hanson as the Beggar Woman especially suffered from this. Most of her dialogue and lyrics were lost and hard to understand. This seemed to be a problem for most of the chorus as well. There were times when the lyrics got lost because you couldn’t understand what was being sung. The chorus had some wonderful moments, such as “The Letter (Quintet).” This was very well done. However, at times there were lines in other chorus numbers (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and its reprisals) that were quite off key from the minus tracks. Hopefully these were just opening night jitters and have been quickly remedied.
There were several mic and sound problems opening night. The music was also quite unbalanced with the singing and in many cases was so loud you could not hear the singers, and they had to strain to be heard. Hopefully this has been addressed in later performances. The lighting was haphazard with dark spots on stage that actors frequently got lost in, particularly during the “Johanna” quartet.
The opening night crowd was enthusiastic and enjoyed the show. I felt there were some very good things happening onstage, but that there were just as many missed opportunities. I have saved my final criticism for the end. If you are not familiar with the story of Sweeney Todd, skip this paragraph. It contains spoilers for the show. One of the key plot points in Sweeney is that he has lost his family when he was wrongfully accused and transported to Australia. He is told when he returns that his wife has poisoned herself and his daughter has been adopted by Judge Turpin. Throughout the show we see a crazed beggar woman hanging around Fleet Street. Part of the shock of the ending of the show is that after Sweeney has killed her, he realizes that she is his wife, Lucy, whom he thought was dead. The first time I saw this show this was such a shock and a tragic note to the show. In this production they make no mystery of the fact that the beggar woman is Lucy. It seems almost ridiculous that Todd sees her throughout the show and never recognizes her until he has killed her. It seems a rather glaring mistake to make.
Okay, back with you all now. This is a good production, in spite of its shortcomings. The three main leads are wonderful and make it very worthwhile to see. I have no doubt that it will sell well. Perhaps the whole company didn’t quite get the time they needed to really polish this show to the luster it should have. This is disappointing considering the potential that is there.