Little Theatre of Alexandria Sweeney ToddBy Xandra Weaver • Aug 2nd, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Little Theatre of Alexandria
Little Theatre of Alexandria, Alexandria, VA
Through August 18th
3:00 with one intermission
Reviewed july 28th, 2012
The production of Sweeney Todd that opened in Little Theater of Alexandria on Saturday night to a packed house was nothing short of theatrical brilliance. The sheer energy and talent on the stage was enough to elevate the production to professional levels, but when added to a dynamic and constantly evolving set, the show became a living thing.
The show of a barber, set on revenge and murder, taking in customers and sending them to be baked into pies by an enterprising schemer is well-known. In this production, each of the characters was rounded and fully realized. Mr. Todd himself, played by Harv Lester, was an older man with a receding hairline who indeed “inconspicuous” in appearance, as the chorus sang in the opening number. This was a man who could slip through a crowd unnoticed, but in the privacy of Mrs. Lovett’s parlor, he was dynamic, explosive and dangerous. Lester created a Sweeney you could laugh with as he plotted his savory baked revenge, but recoil from as he threatened the audience with his brandished razors. This Sweeney plotted more than he brooded, and Lester’s intentionally rounded character had more to offer an audience than a cheap scare.
The Mrs. Lovett that took the stage Saturday night was beautifully inspired by Angela Lansbury’s brash portrayal, but with a coy slyness all her own, as well as an original, fresh and hilarious interpretation of the jokes. The incredible actress playing her was Jennifer Lyons Pagnard, and she made the most of every second as the character. Her capitalization of every moment in the spotlight was true to the needs of the play, as everyone in the cast threw themselves into their roles and made their mark on the audience.
There were some other stunning performances in the show. Johanna, played by Roxanne Sher, was bright, sad, funny and most of all, poignant as one of the only true victims in the show. Her complement was the talented Will Hawkins as Anthony, who showed tenderness and devotion from the first moment he saw the cloistered maiden. Aided by some very beautifully navigated stage direction, his song towards her, which can sometimes come off as a bit stalker like, was very much sweet and seemed completely genuine.
The cast worked together as a whole to pull off the stunning synchronicity of a well-oiled machine. Two large rotating set pieces were used to dress the two sides of the stage, but the cast and chorus also brought set pieces on and provided as living scenery. In one scene particularly, the chorus was dressed as escapees from an insane asylum, all in grays and formless shifts, giving fantastic performances as haunted psychotics. As the set rotated to the bakehouse underneath the pie shop, the chorus members dropped to the ground to become grey obstacles in the smoky sewers surrounding the oven that Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett had to navigate around.
The chorus wasn’t just well skilled at acting, their voices were astounding. The diction and tonal unity of a group is terribly hard to attain in Sondheim shows because of the nature of the dissonant and wordy lyrics. However, this group was absolutely awe-inspiring, right from the first song where every “t” was sounded in perfect unison in the consonant rich pronouncement of “Fleet Street.”
All together, the show was thrilling because of the energy put into it. A production with constant murder and betrayal can be exciting, but not necessarily funny. However, this production struck the best balance one can find with this show, keeping the audience engaged in every aspect, and entertaining with every song and slit throat alike.
In the early 1970s, Stephen Sondheim saw the London production of Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which inspired the menacing, macabre musical that he and Hugh Wheeler crafted and that we bring to you today.
This theatricalized fable began as a serial in a British penny publication in 1846, spawning a melodrama the following year. Subsequent sequels enriched the story, and plagiarists around the world modified the legend, embellishing on the deeds of the barber and his “meat-pie” making accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Other dramatized versions were published and produced, followed by radio shows, more plays, films, a ballet, a TV production (my first encounter with the story), Bond’s production, Sondheim and Wheelers musical and, since then, a major motion picture. The characters, or versions of them, and their deeds can be found referenced or emulated in countless other entertainments.
So what is the big draw? I remember seeing the commercials for the Broadway production as a teenager and finding it weirdly compelling: a musical with such a twisted premise. I soon became enamored with it as Sondheim became a staple in my theatrical repertoire. It has everything – wicked humor, romance, tension, revenge, anticipation, horror, heartbreaking sadness – and music! I was hooked and pretty much wore out the videotape I made from the TV broadcast with my VCR (yes, VCR) by the time I graduated from college.
For me, Sweeney Todd broke so many “rules” of conventional musical theater – a protagonist and lead characters who were murderers and corrupt officials – obsessed and self destroying; plots and subplots with tragic endings (for most); music so differently dynamic and a production style fusing melodrama and farce. The intricate weavings of rich characters and their diabolical machinations set to mesmerizing melodies made this a “must do” show for me. Musical theater can be light, escapist and blindly optimistic, but it need not be. It can provide a shared celebration of compassion and humanity by engaging the audience in a darker journey, providing no simple moral to take away – just a deeper understanding of the power of passion and desire and the complexity of man.
Most often this piece is associated with corruption and revenge. I have found the truer, more fundamental motivation to be desire, because the characters we meet face opportunity to achieve their desires and are helpless to veer from this innate compulsion. Of course, for Sweeney this is revenge – his selected form of justice – a desire so blinding that at each obstacle it grows more encompassing, to the point that his target is no longer just one man, but humanity itself. Mrs. Lovett has a desire for a better life – one she may have missed out on – and will lie, cheat and kill to ensure that this latest opportunity doesn’t pass her by. The Judge, aging, bitter and corrupt, desires youth and beauty, albeit in a lusting and lascivious way. The Beadle, desiring power unscrupulously, exploits any acquaintance, no matter how debauched. Toby craves a family, a sense of belonging, to feel safe and loved, naively latching on to any who will give him care, ignoring their depravity. Pirelli seeks fortune and fame through impersonation and blackmail. Johanna desires her freedom and Anthony the dream of a happy, loving life. All make choices, risking their lives and their souls to quench their desire, wreaking havoc on those who cross their paths: the everyday man, with simpler motives, portrayed by those in the Ensemble.
A production of this complexity would be impossible without the talents of a dedicated and creative team of producers, designers, actors, staff and crew. A set that is a working machine, steampunk inspired costumes, ingenious props, dressings and effects, dramatic lighting and sound, the busiest offstage crew you’ll never see, a music director with magic hands and an impeccable orchestra to boot, singers who could serenade the heavens… It has been a delicious delight bringing this show to life. As Mrs. Lovett says, “Half the fun is to plan the plan,” and what fun it was! We hope you enjoy our talents as much as we enjoy sharing them with you and maybe you will think twice next time you go for a haircut or sample a meat pie!
Photos by Shane Canfield
- Sweeney Todd: Harv Lester
- Anthony Hope: Will Hawkins
- Beggar Woman: Sharon Grant
- Mrs Lovett: Jennifer Lyons Pagnard
- Beadle Bamford: Christopher David Harris
- Johanna Barker: Roxanne Scher
- Judge Turpin: Chris Gillespie
- Adolfo Pirelli: Zachary Frank
- Tobias Ragg: Ben Ribler
- Ensemble: Elliot Bales, Sean Cafferky, Brenna Carroll, Ricky Drummond, Michelle Jacobeen, Sam Jones, Mike McAdoo, Ben Odom, Margie Remmers, Rebecca Roberts, Hannah Rosman
- Clarinet: Mitch Bassman, Lindsay Williams
- Bassoon: Steve Messina
- French Horn: Mark Deal, Deb Kline
- Trumpet: Paul Weiss
- Violin: Kirby Lee
- Cello: Virginia Gardner
- Bass: David Burrelli
- Percussion: Matt Robotham, Paul Durning
- Piano and Conductor: Elisa Rosman
Designers and Crew
The Designers and Crew list will be posted as soon as Laura and Mike are back from vacation.
Disclaimer: Little Theatre of Alexandria provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8393.
Xandra Weaver has a great love of the process of theater and the creation of art that has led her into working both behind the scenes and onstage. Her career includes working for many years providing sound and lights for both professional and amateur shows as well as makeup work for a feature film. At college, she specialized in makeup to earn her theater degree, and discovered a love for directing and playwrighting. She's also been a nominee for the DC area theater WATCH awards for her work with the company of The Producers with The Arlington Players.