Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Theater review: 'Sweeney Todd'

Erratic sound dents an otherwise good production at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Center Valley, Pa.

Theater review: 'Sweeney Todd'

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Dee Roscioli as Mrs. Lovett and William Michals as Sweeney in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of Sweeney Todd, which opened last weekend, ripples with meaty ideas, but they are too often ground into bad meatpies by an erratic, muddy sound design.

Dennis Razze, the festival’s associate artistic director and also the theater department chairman at DeSales University, site of the festival, has given this Stephen Sondheim musical a fresh vision. Under his direction, we’re always aware that the tale is told by actors, as Sondheim intended.
They move metal staircases around the stage so that others can get from one level to another on Steve TenEyck’s two-tiered, minimal set. They cover the rear of the stage with what looks like an old white sheet in order to change to a new scene, just as they would have centuries back, when traveling shows played in open air.

Except for the maddening sound, it would work wonderfully, as the tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street unfolds. William Michals, with long blond ponytail and a powerful, cutting voice, is a stirring Sweeney, the barber who seeks revenge and takes it with his razor on his customers’ throats. Lit from below so his eyes glow with fierce passion, Michals uses the play’s built-in melodrama to good effect.

Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime, whose meatpies are suddenly the best in London because of their strangely tasty fillings, is the superb Dee Roscioli. She’s the most girlish Mrs. Lovett I’ve seen in a fleet of Sweeney Todds, and the most transparently needy. She’s also among the funniest. Makeup designer Martha Ruskai embellishes Roscioli’s eyes with overdone Goth black eyeliner, allowing her to act with them in a way that drives her character. The effect is a knockout.

Other standout cast members are James Stabp and Katie Wexler as young lovers, Charlie Mann as the simple waif who helps Mrs. Lovett, Evan Harrington and Christopher Coucill as villainous authorities, and Dave Schoonover as a rival barber.

But however strong Razze’s directorial vision, it’s blurred by the show’s sound design and its execution. Much of the story relies on Sondheim’s music and lyrics, rather than by Hugh Wheeler’s book, and pivotal points are either confusing or lost because of the iffy sound — or at least they were when I attended Saturday.

The main characters are amplified but the chorus — important at key points in the narrative — is not, at times delivering its message with the force of an unsolved cryptogram. The three women in the show seem often to be overamplified and their showy higher registers nullify the lyrics. One of them is the powerful Michele Sexton, whose crucial beggar woman drowns in Sexton’s own rich vibrato. She is sometimes amplified, sometimes not, and sometimes both as she delivers a single forceful word.

Although the show’s impressive 15-member orchestra excels under the baton of Vincent Trovato, it sometimes naturally overwhelms the unamplified chorus. Matthew Given, the resident sound designer for the festival, has done impressive work before, so it’s hard to understand this Sweeney’s muddle. Fortunately, it’s easier to discern the show’s rich ideas.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.


Sweeney Todd: Through July 1 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley. Tickets: $42-$55. www.pashakespeare.org or 610-282-9455.


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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