Tales of the barber coast: SU Drama students score big time in Sweeney Todd. Michael Davis photo.
Audiences should not shrug and say, “I saw the Tim Burton-Johnny
Depp movie; I get it.” The current Syracuse University Drama Department
production boasts superior voices to all roles from the recent movie
and pulls back from Burton’s indulgences and excesses. Here the
ever-pungent shock of the new comes from the music.
More than other members of SU Drama,
director-choreographer Anthony Salatino and music director Nathan
Hurwitz are widely appreciated in the community at large. Salatino has
been the major force behind the hugely popular Syracuse Stage-SU Drama
holiday collaborations for the last eight years, and he is the major
Sondheim specialist in this part of the world. His staging of A Little Night Music (April-May 2006) was world-class. Hurwitz was the music director, with Marie Kemp’s staging, of Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman’s Urinetown (October
2006), one of the biggest SU Drama draws of recent years. They bring
the artistic credibility to pull one of the most difficult shows a
university theater department could choose to perform.
The setting is London circa 1847, the year when the original penny dreadful version of Sweeney Todd was serially published in the lowbrow Lloyd’s People’s Periodical.
We get no history lessons, but this was a time when one could encounter
everyday horrors everywhere you looked. Unfortunates in the madhouses,
like Bedlam, could still be viewed for penny amusement and their hair
harvested for the wigs and toupees of the affluent. England was
entering the apogee of Victorian wealth and power, and London was
supplanting Paris as the intellectual and cultural center of the earth.
We see the dark underside of that glory. It was also four years after
the publication of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with no promise of eventual redemption.
Melissa Pujols’ scenic design, Katrin
Naumann’s costumes and Eli Polofsky’s lighting design tell us all we
need to know about the danger and rot of the world to be entered by
Benjamin Barker, returned from exile in far Australia. In quick order
he learns that his wife Lucy was raped by Judge Turpin, the man who
exiled him, and that Lucy took poison. Their daughter Johanna, beloved
by Anthony Hope, has been locked away by the judge. The first of
Sondheim’s many bold ironies is having Hope, played by blond tenor
Brendon Stimson, sing a song of praise, “No Place Like London,” amid
all this misery.
Lusting for revenge, Barker takes on the
persona of Sweeney Todd, and soon teams up with his partner, Mrs.
Lovett, baker of the worst meat pies in London. In short order Todd’s
skills are put to the test with a challenge from a rival barber,
Pirelli, a dandified if fraudulent Italian, given to operatic
flourishes. Todd not only triumphs in the contest but immediately
applies his razor to Pirelli’s throat, prompting Mrs. Lovett to suggest
creative ways of disposing of the bodies without leaving traceable
Although there are 25 cast members and
40 musical numbers, the encounter with Pirelli encapsulates the whole.
As Todd, Eric Bilitch’s powerful basso tears into the drama with
dispatch, not to mention blowing away Depp’s slender reeds. The only
person who can force you to take your eyes off Bilitch is the buxom
mezzo with flashing eyes, Nadine Malouf as Mrs. Lovett. Two of the
first four numbers in the show are Mrs. Lovett’s, “The Worst Pies in
London” and “Poor Thing,” and Malouf dazzles with her vocal range and
power. Local audiences will remember her name from Urinetown,
which really established her stage creds. Chrissy Malon, who alternates
in the role with Malouf, could not be in this company without being a
The third player in this section, Danny
Longoria as Pirelli, contributes a comic element, which Sondheim likes
to place side-by-side with the horrifying. Director Salatino serves
Sondheim’s intentions with Longoria’s body, the thinnest male corpus in
the company (and possibly SU). Along with pop-eyed clownish makeup,
Longoria’s body becomes a slippery cartoon figure laced around the
horror of his slit throat.
Elsewhere Sondheim distributes the
musical treasures equally among the baddies and the goodies. The love
song “Johanna,” one of the relatively few numbers to have a life
outside the show, first appears on the lips of the innocent Anthony
Hope, only to be repeated darkly, and every bit as impressively by the
self-flagellating Judge Turpin. Reprises of what a composer thinks will
be his best song are pretty standard, but Sondheim’s radical change of
tone is one of many things that set him apart from the pack. John
Galas’ Judge, tormented and anguished, is an unanticipated reward of
Angelic Catherine Charlebois as Johanna,
with a glorious soprano to match, radiates innocence in all her scenes,
a Victorian heroine recreated in the 20th century. After having been
Hodel in the December production Fiddler on the Roof and Annabel in Lucky Stiff, she has compiled one of the strongest lists of credits of any student currently in the program.
Tenor Gordon Maniskas portrays the
lawman Bamford, at ease in his corruption. Kate Bodenheimer’s tragic
Beggar Woman with a big secret enriches several trios and duets until
we, and Sweeney, realize what she is about. Ian Joseph’s Tobias starts
out as a stooge for Pirelli and then switches allegiance to Sweeney
Todd until he unwittingly figures out what’s happening. His second-act
duet with Mrs. Lovett, “Not While I’m Around,” is a standout.
With virtually all sung dialogue,
extensive choral numbers and ambitious trios and quintets, especially
the second act’s “The Letter,” Sweeney Todd is more an opera
than a Broadway musical, not that that should frighten anyone. In the
hands of movement specialist Salatino, it also incorporates extensive
elements of ballet. Given the bargain admission fees at SU Drama, any
serious theater buff who misses this show should have his or her head
examined. Or neck.
This production runs through May 10. See Times Table for information.