Review: Sweeney Todd of TexARTS Theater – Arts

Matt Wade as Sweeney Todd and Sarah Fleming Walker as Mrs. Lovett (Photo taken by April Paine Photography)

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler are angry, wild and deeply cynical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a brilliant and most unconventional musical.

In it, a despondent barber seeks revenge for his wrongful imprisonment and the senseless destruction of his young family. Living in seedy 19th-century London, Todd preys on his clientele with a straight-edged razor as the fruits of his labor are turned into meat pies and sold in the shop below by Todd’s delightfully demented landlady. , Mrs. Lovett. Todd watches until the judge who set this madness in motion, now the lustful caretaker of Todd’s daughter, Johanna, walks through his door to receive the closest shave he’s ever had.

The series’ eccentricities don’t stop at a murderous hero or a tendency to gravitate toward the macabre. Most characters are also impervious to goodness and redemption. His songs are often devoid of melody and lack that hummable quality one finds desirable in conventional show tunes. And, with its blatant disregard for anything resembling choreography and 85% of its melodramatic story being sung, the musical comes damn close to an opera. So much so that Austin Opera will stage its own production in 2023.

Always, Sweeney isn’t quirky enough for TexARTS Theater. In its production, director Kasey RT Graham and designers Donna Coughlin (stage) and Aaron Kubacak (costume) bring the play into the 21st century. Graham also pared down the significant dramatis personae to a cast of eight, with many dubbed roles and the most populous set numbers like “God, it’s good!” and “Pirelli’s miracle elixir”. It also adopts a gender-neutral cast and replaces the full orchestra and orchestration of the show with musical director Lyn Koenning on keyboard and onstage.

This musical has welcomed many creative choices since its Broadway premiere in 1979, including a staging in London’s oldest pie and mash shop and a revival that gave all the actors instruments. But none of the innovations in this production inform the story or improve the storytelling. Although a limited cast allows players to move easily through a performance space cluttered with assorted curiosities not particularly specific to this piece’s settings, dual cast decisions are often a distraction, and the sacrificed vocal and instrumental support does not make justice to Sondheim’s music. Worse still, they often leave star actors naked and unattached on stage while performing their intimate solos and harmonically intricate duets.

Luckily, these actors are pros and have no trouble holding our attention in a vise throughout production, which is aided by Lucinda Culver’s dramatic lighting design and pinpoint operator precision. Shelby Foshay projector. Matt Wade as Sweeney smolders as his pathological obsession with revenge lurks and is never far from the surface. His intense take on the unsettling “Epiphany,” where he accepts his morbid calling and then rails against the universe, is mesmerizing. Sarah Fleming Walker’s turn as Mrs. Lovett is equally fascinating. She handles the drama of the musical and the humor of the black gallows with equal aplomb. The musical number ‘By the Sea’, where Ms Lovett charmingly fantasizes about going on holiday with a brooding and insensitive Sweeney, almost steals the show.

Other Featured Performers – Alex Rudd and Sarah Zeringue as innocent romantic leads Anthony and Johanna, respectively; Daniel Winkler as Mrs. Lovett’s sweet and simple assistant, Tobias; Ray DeJohn as the deeply disturbed Judge Turpin; and Christian Erben as his henchman, Beadle Bamford, and asylum operator, Jonas Fogg – are equally superb in voice and presentation. Rachel Pallante, as the mad beggar and rival barber Adolfo Pirelli, is particularly engaging and brings a remarkable dimensionality to both roles.

Sweeney Todd, as it is written, demands a lot from the company and the audience. This TexARTS production demands even more, but it’s hard to argue with the recommendation served up in the show’s opening lyrics: Witness the story of Sweeney Todd.

TexARTS Theater Sweeney Todd

2300 Lohmans Spur #160, Lakeway, 512/852-9079,
Until February 27
Duration: 2h30.

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