Locally, Sondheim musicals have been
pretty much the province of Wit’s End Players, which took home Syracuse
New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards for Into the Woods
(2003) and Assassins (2006), while doing more than respectable
business. This summer it’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet
Street, now at the Catherine Cummings Theatre in Cazenovia, and the
passions flow like blood from the victims’ necks.
Given that producer-director David
Witanowski was well aware of last winter’s Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie
version, he would never have undertaken this production if he were not
sure he had stronger voices than those heard there. As Todd, Josh Mele
has been a familiar player on the scene for some time, winning his SALT
trophy for John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Perhaps because he comes
from a theatrical family, Mele has always enjoyed a strong stage
presence and can dominate a scene without excess white makeup or even
opening his mouth. Once he’s established with the opening “Ballad of
Sweeney Todd,” he never lets go, even though his musical numbers all
are duets and trios.
Jodie Baum and her powerful voice have
been on the scene less time but she had established herself as
everybody’s favorite supporting player who wasn’t quite right for
leads. Her unquestioned musical ability, along with a flair for raucous
comedy, propels her into her first lead as Mrs. Lovett, carrying more
than her share of the dramatic weight. Her macabre duet with Mele’s
Todd, “A Little Priest,” with lyrics turning on grotesque puns about
cannibalism (“Do you want that general with his privates?”), is the
highlight of the entire production. She scores again in the second act
with the solo, “By the Sea,” and the unfeigned emotions of “Not While
I’m Around,” a duet with young Andrew King as Tobias.
In a reverse of convention, Todd and
Mrs. Lovett are essentially character leads while the two lovers are at
the head of the supporting players. In casting these roles Witanowski
has drawn on his leads in The Fantasticks of a year ago, Sarah Naughton
and Alec Barbour. This assigns to Barbour the affecting “Johanna,” the
sole romantic number in the show. As blond Anthony Hope, Barbour must
carry an optimism that runs against the rest of the action. Soprano
Naughton, now a musical theater student at New York University, deals
with wider responsibilities, such as Johanna dressing in a cap as a
“boy” and singing with a chorus of lunatics in “City on Fire.”
The villains also come doubled, with the
bearded fire-breathing Judge Turpin being the more ferocious. Sporting
a salt-and-pepper beard, and black curls at the edge of his pate, Bill
Molesky comes up with a new face for this malevolent force. Consider
his rap sheet: The judge has sent Todd (previously named Benjamin
Barker) to Australia on trumped-up charges, raped the man’s wife and
shrugged off her apparent suicide from poisoning.
Bringing evil up to date, he has taken
over Todd’s daughter Johanna as his ward, confined her in a lunatic
asylum and wants to marry her. When the judge picks up the melody of
the love song “Johanna,” he flagellates himself for his abundant sins.
Remembering Sweeney Todd’s subtitle, it’s not a stretch to see him as
the “Demon Jurist of the Inner Temple.” Despite how familiar Molesky’s
mug has become in recent years, playing everyone from Tevye to Picasso,
he can bring a chill across the stage, or a cheer when the razor gets
to his neck.
Paired with him is the bewigged pious
hypocritical lawman, Beadle Bamford, played by James W. Shults. Best
known as a tenor with a reliable upper register, Shults charms with the
surprising solo, “Ladies in Their Sensitivities,” and has his best
dramatic moment when he pulls an innocent budgie away from the Bird
Seller (Rob Fonda) and strangles it.
Still to be mentioned are two more
supporting players who are not what they seem. Basil Allen incarnates
the heavily accented Adolfo Pirelli, who suffers the audacity to
challenge Todd as he is about the relaunch his career. In a public
shaving contest, Allen’s Pirelli is filled with operatic flourishes and
witty improv, but Todd finishes faster and cleaner. This bravura,
albeit small, role calls for much body English—or is that Italian?
Choreographer Shannon Tompkins no doubt contributed to Allen’s physical
The other noteworthy supporting player
is Tina Lee as the scruffy Beggar Woman, who keeps showing up to add to
trios, such as “No Place Like London,” even as everyone else shuns her.
Under Witanowski’s guidance, Lee makes the Beggar Woman more physical
and assertive than in other productions, but not so much that we are on
to her Big Secret, which cannot be revealed.
The 14-member ensemble includes players
like Brian Pringle, Erin Race and Kellie Ellis who have been leads in
other shows. Their cumulative expressive movement might not qualify as
dance, but Tompkins’ choreography creates mood and tone in several
scenes, notably of the madhouse.
Music director Jon Balcourt, who
announces in the program he’s about to leave town to attend New York
University, commands a seven-player orchestra with strings, brass and
woodwind. He honors the echoes of Sergei Prokofiev and Arnold
Schoenberg in the score, and neatly accommodates the rapid-fire mood
changes. The duet “Pretty Women,” when Judge Turpin first sits in
Todd’s barber chair, shows how this is done.
This production runs through July 26. See Times Table for information.