A CLOSE SHAVE
The Pacific Opera Project’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street promises so much blood that before the curtain goes up three characters ask if the people in the first two rows might like to buy ponchos for one quid each. The ponchos aren’t really for sale though, and no blood flies when Todd begins slashing throats. Director Josh Shaw has assembled cast members who likewise exude Halloween spirit, but limited vocal power lessens the impact of their performance.
The lack of blood is troublesome since the story of the Demon Barber depends on a movement from black, to red, and back to black again. The story of Sweeney Todd begins in darkness when a bitter man returns to London after being lost at sea. This man was a barber named Benjamin Barker who found happiness in his family and his profession until his wife was raped and he was exiled to a penal colony by his enemies. Barker has escaped from prison to swear vengeance on his persecutors under the new name of Sweeney Todd. He repeats these verses as his mantra:
“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it”
Todd believes that since he has lost everything, he will find justice for himself and for his family by slitting the throats of those who sit in his barber’s chair. While he exacts payment for his shattered life, Todd’s razors will “drip rubies.” He makes his mantra real with the help of the meat pie maker, Mrs. Lovett, who is played with delicious lust and greed by Amanda Carlin. Together they fill the greedy mouths of Londoners with the flesh of their victims. Yet in a classic turn of fate, it is Todd himself who destroys his last chance at happiness by embracing revenge. After the redness fades, the darkness returns, blacker than ever.
The highlight of this production of Sweeney Todd is the title character, played by Phil Meyer. Meyer towers over the rest of the ensemble as his deep, rich voice cuts across the stage with an authority that compels the audience to respect Todd’s despair. The Porticoes Theater, however, was not built with musical theater in mind, and the weaker voices of the rest of the cast are often swallowed up. Even from the second row it is difficult to hear anyone besides Meyer speaking from inside Todd’s second-floor barber shop. The other exception to this is Hallie Silverston (as Todd’s estranged daughter Johanna) whose voice easily overpowers that of her lover, Anthony Hope (played by Timothy Campbell) in each of their duets.
Shaw overcomes this weakness in part by putting as many voices on stage and around the audience as possible. A cast of thirty-one is constantly making its way down the aisles, in front of the stage, and onto it. When singing as a chorus, this troop of largely unnamed characters packs a punch, but their volume backfires when any character apart from Meyer or Silverston tries to sing over them. They simply can’t be heard, and should have microphones. This large cast is at its best during scenes of frenetic movement, such as when it appears that all of London is now eating Mrs. Lovett’s special meat pies, or when a riot at Fogg’s Lunatic Asylum resembles a scene from Night of the Living Dead.
Ryan Schull’s lighting helps to make up for the lack of spurting blood by silhouetting Todd during his climactic moments of throat slashing. Even Stephen Karr’s orchestra takes the stage in makeup and in character as the walking dead. However, since the rest of the cast can’t measure up to Meyer, the performance is lacking whenever he walks off stage. Sweeney Toddis a delightful production to see at this time of year, and this version should be particularly fun on Halloween night when the audience members are encouraged to arrive in costume. However, the Pacific Opera Project’s presentation will disappoint those who hope to add some fake blood to their costumes or who expect opera-quality voices from the entire cast.
photos by Josh Shaw
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Pacific Opera Project at Porticoes Theater in Pasadena
and Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on November 4, 2012
for tickets, call 323-739-6122 or visit http://www.pacificoperaproject.com