Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sweeny Todd: Melodrama and Guignol with Wit and Panache

Asheville Community Theatre
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 
Through October 30, 2016 

Steve Parkin and Christy Montesdeoca as Todd and Lovett in ACT'S Sweeney Todd
Steve Parkin and Christy Montesdeoca as Todd and Lovett in ACT'S Sweeney Todd Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Designs
 Christy Montesdeoca puts on a bright red wig and a broad cockney accent to play the nefarious Mrs. Lovett in the Asheville Community Theatre's earnest production of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

Wig and accent tell us as clearly as a fairground barker that Mrs. Lovett, who makes her meat pies from the victims of Sweeney Todd's razor, is a comic villainess.

This Mrs. Lovett is also a bit of a pantomime dame (although those roles are played by men in drag), with some music hall mixed in. That's a fine choice, although we may miss Mrs. L's longing for love and respectability under the ruthlessness. Sweeney Todd, after all, wants to take us back to Victorian times, when pantomime, melodrama, and Grand Guignol were popular. 

The actress has a lovely voice, and she carries Sondheim's tricky tunes with the same panache that she wears that mop of corkscrew curls. 

Ms. Montesdeoca is well paired with Steve Parkin as Sweeney Todd, a man unjustly transported to Australia. He's now returned to London to take his revenge on the judge who transported him there. 

With a strong voice and a solid stage presence, Mr. Parkin paints the male half of this villainous duo with darker hues. Their patter song, "A Little Priest," cataloging the various human types they'll harvest for Mrs. Lovett's pies, is a highlight of the show.

But, oh, if only their diction were as clear as their notes, so we could savor Sondheim's tasty  lyrics. (Have a little priest/Is it really good?/Sir, it's too good, at least!/Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh,/So it's pretty fresh./Awful lot of fat./Only where it sat./Haven't you got poet, or something like that?/No, y'see, the trouble with poet is/How do you know it's deceased?/Try the priest!)

Muddled words may be partly the fault of ACT's antiquated sound system. All the performers are miked, so audibility isn't the problem. But with two large speakers overhead at stage center, the voices of the large cast and chorus all emanate from one spot. It's sometimes hard to tell who is singing and where they are. Let's hope ACT's planned renovation includes a more sophisticated sound system that lets the voices move with the performer.

I also hope the redoubtable music director Lenora Thom coaxes her singers to bite their consonants as crisply as they hit their harmonies.

Mr. Parkin and Ms. Montesdeoca are the happy faces of the challenge a nonprofessional company takes on with something this demanding. Sweeney Todd is  more opera than musical comedy. It's more singing than speaking, and there's a continual underscore of music. It might have been a comfortable fit for Asheville Lyric Opera. But who would want to deny this large cast the fun of playing such delicious roles. 

Asheville theatre can allow untrained and even inexperienced enthusiasts to join in the fun. Musicians, like dancers, however, expect to train and practice. From their program bios, it appears that Ms. Montesdeoca and Mr. Parkin have done both. It helps that they have natural talent.

As talented and perhaps as well trained (their bios are not specific) are Maxmillian Koger as Anthony, the young sailor who returns from Australia with Sweeney Todd, and Bradshaw Call as Pirelli, the blackmailing barber who once was his apprentice.

Koger is fresh-faced, clear-voiced, and appealing. What he lacks in punch, he makes up for in sincerity. 

Bradshaw Call always cuts and struts a colorful figure on local stages. He spits out Pirelli's faux-Italian accent with mandible-crunching glee. Is he over the top? Well, Pirelli is over the top. 

When he is cut off all too early and all too literally in the first act, I wished he might return as another character in the second act. Would the script allow him to be double cast as another of the show's several villains?

Lora Ristau is Johanna, Sweeney Todd's long-lost daughter, sequestered by the nasty Judge Turpin in his house and then an asylum. Her rescue by Anthony from his evil clutches is the mainspring of the plot. Ms. Ristau's singing isn't as steady as Mr. Koger's, but she matches him in appeal and sincerity.

Jerry Crouch, the doyen of Asheville musical theatre directors, maneuvers his large cast of principals and chorus in and out efficiently on scenic designer Jill Summers's massive set. There are occasional forays on the side stages and into the audience, but he gives in too often to the temptation to string his performers out in lines along the long, awkward horizontal of ACT's open stage. (Maybe the remodel will reconfigure the stage as well as the auditorium.) 

Ms. Summers aims for old-fashioned stage realism, with  brick and stone meticulously painted on canvas-covered flats. Although that's in keeping with Victorian stage practice, a more suggestive structure and more atmospherics might have given Mr. Crouch opportunities for fluid staging. 

Some graffiti and Victorian advertising bills plastered on those pristine bricks would have added to the realism, as well as the texture.

Lighting designer Rob Bowen may have been hampered by a lack of instruments in the theatre's equipment storage. Like Ms. Summers, a former student of his, he appears to have opted for the utilitarian, with white spotlights for singers, rather than using light to paint the stage with mood. 

The set and the lighting would have appreciated more London fog to give the whole picture a unifying haze.

The costumes, credited only to someone named "Ida," were a motley of styles and periods. They nodded to Victoriana without digging deeply into the period's fabrics, textures, or silhouettes. It's hard to know if the problem was lack of resources or lack of research.

And these are the cleanest ink-stained, gin-soaked wretches ever to inhabit Fleet Street. Mrs. Lovett manages to bake her pies without a trace of grease or flour.  The costumes would have appreciated some tatters, tears, and grime. The faces and the arms,  like the set, needed lots of Victorian soot.

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