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Toby’s Dinner Theatre Sweeney Todd

By • Sep 29th, 2009 • Category: Reviews
Sweeney Todd Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by Hugh Wheeler
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Columbia, MD
Through November 8th
$46-$51
3:00, with one intermission
Reviewed September 26th, 2009

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a musical thriller based on the 1973 play Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Christopher Bond, which, in turn, has its roots based in early Victorian melodrama and, in particular, a “penny dreadful” serial (precursor to the “pulp fiction” novel), entitled The String of Pearls (1846-1847) and in similar works of fiction that can be traced as far back as the 17th century.

The musical, which made its first appearance in 1979, originally starred Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the lead roles and ran for 557 performances on Broadway. It was revived and restaged in 2005, with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in the roles and a much sparer score. There are not enough superlatives to describe Toby Orenstein‘s version, which hearkens back to the original, richer production, now playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

Famous for his highly intricate and extraordinarily difficult scores, Sondheim’s music is haunting and sophisticated, amazingly complex and surprisingly witty, never failing to surprise, from the opening note to the last scene. Toby’s cast tackles this classic tale of madness and revenge with razor-sharp, impeccable timing and a flair for the drama and comedy inherent in Hugh Wheeler’s book.

Ms. Orenstein makes clever and complete use of the arena space, fine-tuned to ensure that no-one is left watching the actors’ backs. Her deft touch brings this show to life. The Broadway-caliber singing is better that some professional productions I’ve seen in the recent past. Christopher Youstra‘s music direction is spot on and fully realized, with nothing held back.

Her staging is exceptional, especially considering the limitations of the space and the special requirements of the script. To give specifics would be giving too much away, especially if you’ve never seen the stage version before. Don’t let Tim Burton’s recent film treatment stop you. The movie bears a passing resemblance, but there’s no comparison between the two. This is far and away the better production.

From start to finish, the show is staged so exquisitely that only Russell Sunday‘s lack of an English accent can be considered a defect, and it’s a minuscule one at that. In all other ways he is Sweeney Todd. Lynne Sigler channels Angela Lansbury but makes the part her own, with comic timing and expression that enhances her role as Mrs. Lovett.

Jamison Foreman, is impressively talented as simple-minded Tobias. April Blandin is gifted as The Beggar Woman, every bit as demented as she should be and always in motion. Their pivotal roles in the mayhem make the second act.

Shout-outs also go to the following: Jessica Ball, as Johanna, implores the birds to teach her how to sing. No need. She already sings like a nightingale. Jeffrey Shankle, as Anthony, gives the lovesick sailor his charm, making the role that much more poignant. David Reynolds as Judge Turpin and Andrew Horn as Beadle Bamford make a delightfully sleazy pair as the morally bankrupt civil servants they are.

Of special note: The aforementioned movie strips out “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” reducing it to a voiceless opening number. In this production the Greek chorus is presented with glorious power and darkness. “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” “The Contest,” “God, That’s Good,” and “City on Fire” are phenomenal ensemble pieces. “A Little Priest” is delivered here as the most wonderfully sick vaudeville-style routine, a new low in low comedy. You can’t help laughing even as you watch the madness take these people straight into Hell.

Set designer David A. Hopkins is to be congratulated for finding the perfect gimmick for creating levels and for moving bodies off stage. It’s a slick solution to a tricky problem in a stage space with no clearance or pit. Sound Designer Drew Dedrick and lighting designer Lynn Joslin give us the perfect atmosphere. Lawrence B. Munsey (multi-talented as both Pirelli and the show’s costume designer) provides the grit and finery we need to be transported to late 19th century London.

A word to the wise: This production is not for children. Use your judgment when selecting family fare. For the rest, don’t miss this show!

The performance runs just under three hours with a 20-minute intermission.

Director’s Notes

The rare instance of a musical thriller — Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s chilling, suspenseful, heart-pounding masterpiece of murderous barbarism and culinary crime tells the infamous tale of the unjustly exiled barber (Sweeney Todd played by Russell Sunday) who returns to 19th century London seeking revenge against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife. His thirst for blood soon expands to include his unfortunate customers, and the resourceful proprietress (Mrs. Lovett played by Lynne Sigler) of the pie shop downstairs soon has the people of London lining up in droves with her mysterious new meat pie recipe.

Sophisticated, macabre, visceral and uncompromising, “Sweeney Todd” nevertheless has a great sense of fun, mixing intense drama with howlingly funny moments of dark humor: audiences find themselves laughing hysterically one moment and gasping in surprise the next.

Cast

  • Sweeney Todd: Russell Sunday
  • Anthony: Jeffrey Shankle
  • Beggar Woman: April Blandin
  • Mrs. Lovett: Lynne Sigler
  • Johanna: Jessica Ball
  • Judge Turpin: David Reynolds
  • Beadle Bamford: Andrew Horn
  • Tobias: Jamison Foreman
  • Pirelli: Lawrence B. Munsey
  • Phineas Fogg: Alan Hoffman
  • Bird Seller: Jeff Higgins
  • Ensemble: Heather Marie Beck; Debra Buonaccorsi, Melynda Burdette, Maria Egler, Byron Fenstermaker, David Frankenberger, Crystal Freeman, Adam Grabau, Dan Sonntag

Understudies:

  • Sweeney Todd: Adam Grabau
  • Mrs. Lovett: Heather Marie Beck
  • Anthony: David Frankenberger
  • Beggar Women: Debra Buonaccorsi
  • Johanna: Erin Donovan
  • Judge Turpin: Alan Hoffman
  • Beadle Bamford: Byron Fenstermaker
  • Tobias: Conrad Buck
  • Pirelli: Dan Sonntag
  • Swings: Erin Donovan & Conrad Buck

Orchestra

  • Piano / Conductor: Chris Youstra, Greg Knauf or Brant Challacombe
  • Keyboards: Ann Prizzi or Pamela Wilt
  • Trumpet: S. Craig Taylor, Brandon Almagro or Tony Neenan
  • Trombone: Nick Mazziot or Jay Ellis
  • Reed: Steven Haaser or Katie Kellert
  • Percussion: Jack Loercher, Aaron Holmes or Robby Burns

Production Staff

  • Director: Toby Orenstein
  • Additional Staging: Lawrence B. Munsey
  • Musical Director: Christopher Youstra
  • Set Designer: David A. Hopkins
  • Costume Designer: Lawrence B. Munsey
  • Lighting Designer, Sweeney Todd: Lynn Joslin
  • Sound Designer: Drew Dedrick
  • Production Stage Manager: Vickie S. Johnson
  • Production Assistant: Michael Nesvold
  • Stage Managers: Drew Dedrick, Terrence Sweeney
  • Master Carpenter: David A. Hopkins
  • Set Construction: Russell Sunday, Jason Krznarich, Sarah Splaine, Dan McQuay, Corey Brown
  • Properties and Set Dressing: Amy Kaplan
  • Light Board Operators: Coleen M. Foley, Erin MacDonald
  • Sound Operators: Drew Dedrick, Jimmy Engelkemier, Melvina Coker, Josh Seifert
  • Stage Crew: Erin MacDonald, Heather McNeal

Theatre Staff

  • Artistic Director: Toby Orenstein
  • General Manager: Joel Friedman
  • Assistant Manager: Patrick Albright
  • Form Manager: Steve Lewis
  • Chef / Kitchen Manager: Chuck Cofield
  • Chef / Assistant Kitchen Manager: Anthony Beachum
  • Director of Group Sales / Tour and Travel: Cheryl Clemens
  • Assistant Director of Group Sales / Tour and Travel: Audrey Kyle
  • Director of Marketing: Nancy Michel
  • Bookkeeper: Bayna Castner
  • Box Office Manager: Judy Abrams
  • Associate Artistic Directors: David A. Hopkins, Lawrence B. Munsey
  • Technical Director: Jimmy Engelkemier
  • Theatre Photography / Website Developer: Kirstine Christiansen
  • Youth Theatre Administrator: Toba Barth
  • Bar Manager: Shawn Kettering
  • Box Office Staff: Gina Allen, Judy Berry, Laura Blasi, Mary Dempsey, Lynae Harris, Breena Hebron, Estelle King, Clare Krasnick, Marie Moineau, Pat Wright
  • Group Sales Hosting Staff: Denise Steadman, Paula Jones, Laura Ciborowski
  • Maintenance Engineers: Chris Barry, Stephen B. Harris, Mike Monahan
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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

2 Responses »

  1. Betsy’s review is dead on. Toby’s production of Sweeney Todd is fabulous, with a cast that sings Sondheim’s score beautifully. Betsy’s fantastic review says it all. Don’t miss it!

  2. Agree with the accolades. This is a fantastic show! Don’t miss the opportunity to experience an intimate Sweeney Todd in-the-round at Toby’s. It’s so powerful. Can’t say enough good things about it and hope to go again.