Signature Theatre Sweeney ToddBy Mark Lee Adams • Feb 18th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through April 4th
2:30 with one intermission
Reviewed February 14th, 2010
Sweeney Todd has throat cut!
It comes as no surprise as you enter Signature Theatre to watch Sweeney Todd that this theatre is made for the Sondheim Musical Masterpiece. Darkly lit entrance ways, covered with many of what may appear to be plastic barbers capes. (More on that later.) The walls are black in color. The house lights are low with a slow pulse like surge of power to coincide with a deep and dark reverberation from the sound system. As you sit, you view the 3/4 thrust and a curtain made of sewn off-white barber’s capes almost covering the ‘signature’ scaffolding we have grown accustomed to. The air was kept quite cool. One may wonder if the cooling affect on the audience was intentional and if so, was the effect effective?
Driving home through the snow laden streets with all the pot holes and slippery streets, one feels like you may be on a dirt road or yes, even a construction site. Oh! I get it! Now the plastic sheeting makes some sense…um…no, it doesn’t. Period show, period costumes, period culture, none of which make up or make believable the plastic sheeting of a construction site today or then. Theatrical license maybe, but like the character Josh says in the movie Big when asked to believe a building transforms into a robot, he slowly raises his hand saying, “I don’t get it.” And switching the meat grinder to a cement mixer, also typifying a construction site, was also out of period. Hmmm. I remember seeing a Shakespeare production placed in modern day Appalachia, one done in the nude and one done in Central Park, NYC with the actors dressed as 1960’s Hippies and these shows were somewhat successful, but they brought the production into those periods and stayed true to them. Take license, sure, but don’t force me into thinking up your visions without a grounding point. There wasn’t even a director’s note in the playbill about the use of plastic or a cement mixer in place of a meat grinder.
Some other things I didn’t get. Like, how does the Judge slide out of the barber’s chair and take a 90 degree turn on the way down to Mrs. Lovett’s basement? Oops, there goes my hand again, “I don’t get it.” What was the bucket of dripping blood at the opening of the show? Was that just for effect? Well ok, I’ll buy that. What was the geography of the locations though? Actors seemed to be exiting one way to get to one place and then exiting another way to get to the same place? Raising my hand again, or was that a high road low road map? And why shave an actor’s head into splotches? Did the character really have a disease as he sings in the barker song near the beginning of the show? If the character did have a disease, then why was this actor’s head shaved in such symmetrical, razor blade like strokes and what was Mrs. Lovett doing running her fingers through it in act 2? If not, then wouldn’t his hair have grown somewhat through the time lapse of the show? “Excuse me (raising my hand) I don’t get it.” It would also be nice to have Sweeny’s “Friend” work. Two or three times it slit the neck of the victim and no blood.
Ok, now the finale. All the characters are dead or insane. They come back to sing the wonderful finale of the production and the last two, Sweeny and Lovett, cap off the song with one pouring a bucket of blood on the hands of the other and then they exit? I mean, what was that for? Weren’t they dead? Wasn’t the finale a song of the story sung by the story tellers? My hand is rising again.
Now, I’d like to say a few things about the performances. The director, Eric Schaeffer made a fabulous choice to cast the show from the vast pool of Washington, DC Metro actors. This was a very refreshing choice. This area has some of the best actors in this country if not the world. I wonder, however, how anyone can open a show with performers who sing off key or miss notes altogether. Not all, mind you, but enough to make some people in the audience (including myself) cringe on a note gone sharp and/or flat. My hand raises and asks, “Isn’t this Signature?” I truly truly hope the rehearsal time was cut short due to the blizzards and the show just wasn’t ready to open, because the poor singing by enough of the major roles was very disheartening. Edward Gero plays Sweeney Todd with great stage presence and a stare that, at first spooky, almost became comical. Michael Bunce had some wonderful comical moments, but lost his notes at times. Chris Van Cleave had, at times, a weak voice and his song “Johanna” had no passion or lust. (This may be due to depriving the audience from seeing Johanna through the eyes of the Judge.)
A word or two about some of the wonder you may see in this production of Sweeney Todd. Sherri L. Edelen playing Mrs. Lovett was flawless in voice as well as her superb command of subtly and nuance. She was magnificent in every aspect of her performance. She alone is worth the price of admission. In the title role, Edward Gero brings to the stage a remarkable resume, but chose a very stoic and seemingly numb approach to his Sweeney Todd. He had some very nice nuanced moments but they were too overshadowed by the prevailing stoical presence of his performance. Sam Ludwig, in the role of Tobias Ragg, has a powerful and beautiful voice. His presence and command of the stage without detracting from the story or his fellow performers was spot on. Erin Driscoll, playing Johanna gave her character a strong and almost self assured demeanor. Not so much demure and birdlike as the story tells, but an interesting and believable journey for her Johanna. Gregory Maheu was very pleasant as Anthony as he fell in love with Johanna. His voice was eerily reminiscent of some recordings of the song though. Matt Conner was perfect as Jonas Fogg. Great voice was crystal and clear and his character had a creepy and sliminess the role demands. Well done. I tip my hat to the Ensemble. They were sure of foot and strong of voice and acting skills. Notable performances from the Ensemble were: Jean Cantrell, Matt Conner, Sean Maurice Lynch, Kevin McAllister, Katie McManus, Christopher Mueller, Russell Sunday, Hannah Willman & Weslie Woodley. Yes all of them. Thank each of you for a great performance; always in the moment; always with definiteness of purpose. Hear! Hear!
Jon Kalbfleisch, the music director for this production was good as always, but I wonder if the actors could hear it well. Some of the actors were sliding off pitch. The scenic design was by James Kronzer was curious. The scaffolding was to be expected, but Mrs. Lovett’s place of business grew to include a cement mixer and the ovens were so huge, they could feed an army. I have no problem with steering away from the self contained sets which productions of Sweeney Todd seem to have, but to force the audience into multi-tasking the two storied doors as multi-locations was a tad much. The costumes by Kathleen Geldard were great. Mr. Gero’s first act costume seemed a bit tight however. Chris Lee’s lighting design was wonderful. I would’ve loved to see more lighting of the paths taken by the actors on their way from one location to the next.
What’s peculiar about this production is that the Sondheim Masterpiece prevails through it all. The story is alive and real. Thanks to wonderful moments of Sherri L. Edelen, Erin Driscoll, Sam Ludwig, Gregory Maheu, Matt Conner, Chris Sizemore and the Ensemble.
Photos by Scott Suchman for Signature Theatre.
- Anthony Hope: Gregory Maheu
- Sweeney Todd: Edward Gero
- Beggar Woman: Channez McQuay
- Mrs. Lovett: Sherri L. Edelen
- Judge Turpin: Chris Van Cleave
- The Beadle: Chris Sizemore
- Johanna: Erin Driscoll
- Tobias Ragg: Sam Ludwig
- Pirelli: Michael Bunce
- Jonas Fogg: Matt Conner
- Ensemble: Jean Cantrell, Matt Conner, Sean Maurice Lynch, Kevin McAllister, Katie McManus, Chris Mueller, Russell Sunday, Hannah Willman, Weslie Woodley
- Understudies: Sweeney Todd: Russell Sunday; Beggar Woman: Jean Cantrell; Mrs. Lovett, Katie McManus; Judge Turpin, Kevin McAllister; Johanna, Hannah Willman; Pirelli and The Beadle, Chris Mueller, Anthony Hope, Matthew Joseph Greenfield; Tobias Ragg, Benjamin Lurye, Male Swings; Matthew Joseph Greenfield, Joshua D. Dick, Female Swings; Melynda Burdette, Kirstin Riegler
- Conductor/Piano: Zak Sandler
- Woodwinds: Ben Bokor
- Cello: Aron Rider
- Percussion: Lee Hinkle
- Harmonium courtesy of Carl David Ruck
- Scenic Design: James Kronzer
- Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
- Lighting Design: Chris Lee
- Sound Design: Matt Rowe
- Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein
- Assistant Stage Manager: Katherine C. Mielke
- Production Manager: Timothy H. O’Connell
- Orchestrations: Zak Sandler
- Music Direction by: Jon Kalbfeisch
- Musical Staging by: Matthew Gardiner
- Directed by: Eric Schaeffer
Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/4724.
Mark Lee Adams has been involved in theatre for over 40 years in the local Washington DC Metro area as well as NYC and London England. Mark has performed at the Dramatist Guild Theatre on Broadway, at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre Off-Broadway. His credits include work in many local theatres as well: The Folger Theatre Group, Arena Stage, New Playwrights Theatre, 7th Street Players, The Keegan Theatre, The American Century Theatre, The Journeyman Theatre, ASTA Theatre, The Hayloft Dinner Theatre (Associate Producer), The Lazy Susan Theatre, Discovery Channels, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (Frankenstein) with Donald Sutherland. London, England credits include work at: The Duke of York Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, The Questors Theatre, The British Embassy Players. Mark is a graduate of The Drama Studio, London, England. Mark is also a narrator of audio books for Gildan Audio: “True North”, by Bill George; “Never Give Up”, by Tedy Bruschi and “Five Minds for the Future”, by Howard Gardner among them. Mark currently teaches Advanced Acting at The Little Theatre of Alexandria and still performs locally in many theatres.