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 email@example.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.