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Fiendishly Marvelous “Sweeney Todd” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) September 29, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is back at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, and it has arrived with a vengeance. You better get your tickets right now before the word of mouth and rave reviews send sales soaring — as best they should for this superior production.

Set in a 40’s London factory, Encore’s players “tell the tale” just beautifully, and with such terrific vocal direction and orchestra blend (by the always terrific Tyler Driskill) that you understand every word. And while Sondheim himself would cringe at the use of the term “opera” to describe this piece, that is, in essence, exactly what it is.

Staged non-traditionally in a fully immersive environment in which the audience surrounds the stage on three sides at various levels, and where actors interact in the aisles and stairways throughout, this is a whiz-bang production both directed and designed by the adroit and skilled Matthew Brennan, with actual scenic execution  by Sarah Tanner, Lighting Design by Tyler Chinn, Costume Design by Sharon Larkey Urick, Properties Design by Anne Donevan, and Sound Design by Chris Goosman and Joshua Thorington. I list all of these folks first because they are inseparable and they have done a tremendous job of bringing the technical aspects of this stunning production to fruition.

The show is nothing if you don’t have remarkable leads – and this production sure does. David Moan is exquisite as Sweeney Todd – his voice and acting are remarkable and lend the character both an eeriness and a liveliness that blend well in the intimate setting. Its a great performance and will resonate with you long after the evening has reached its grisly conclusion. Sarah Briggs is one of the best Mrs Lovett’s you could ever imagine. She is able to instantly convey humor, horror, and pity (sometimes at the same time) and she captures every moment with thoughtful acting and great vocal work. As the first act’s black and white schema bleeds away into a more colorful second act, so do their interactive moments which grow to a crescendo in the final moments. Well, that’s the play and we wouldn’t want to give it away, right? Though I doubt many of the folks going to see this musical don’t know that it ends badly for these two.

Sebastian Gerstner sounds great as Anthony, and Emily Hadick is lovely as Johanna. The couple have the musical’s prettiest songs and they are very up to the task. Emily Rogers is spot-on as the Beggar Woman and sings and acts beautifully. Keith Kalinowski is excellent as always as Judge Turpin (and what a joy to hear his very well acted and sung “Ladies in their Sensitivities Mea Culpa”, almost universally cut from productions) — though you might not know from the staging that he is committing self-flagellation unless you are already familiar with the show (but now you know).

Dan Johnson is very good as the Beadle, and his sometimes befuddled look on stage lends itself well to this multifaceted role, subservient to the Judge while trying to represent decorum and order at the same time to the outside world. Jamie Colburn is an entertaining Pirelli. Toby (“Nothing’s Gonna Harm You”) is well-performed by Billy Eric Robinson, though twice the size of Mrs Lovett, you never really get a strong sense of menace or that he is in any imminent type of danger. In fact, that is a running theme throughout the evening — while favoring character over menace, you never quite get a sense of your heart quickening or the hair standing up on your arms, like you do at some other productions of “Sweeney Todd”. Everything is kept to a symbolic minimum here but it works very well in this staging.

The entire ensemble is strong and the vocal work is outstanding. Most of these folks have played leads in other Encore shows and on other area stages so its like a who’s who of local theater: Logan Balcom, Nick Casella, James Fischer, Leah Fox, Bryana Hall, Angela Hench, Marlene Inman, Michael Jones, Chris Joseph, Gayle Martin, Dan Morrison, and Alexandra Reynolds populate the town, play all of the assorted characters from quirky to sympathetic, and carry chairs around. A lot. Leah Fox plays a mean accordion in a brilliant staging concept.

Oh, there is blood. Plenty of it in the second act. THANK YOU! The Encore’s last iteration of this show was a bloodless affair. There is plenty of it here, and it is well-staged and realistic. Although keeping with the evenings staging, everything is ultimately done symbolically. There is no tipping chair that dumps a body through the stage floor, down a slide, and into the bakehouse below.

To say that this production is excellent is an understatement. It is most likely the best production of this musical you are likely to see locally. It is a marvelous interpretation by a masterful director who well understands that you will never be able to stage the production like it was originally staged on the Broadway stage in this small house. So instead he takes what might be seen as a shortcoming and transforms the entire theater into something special. I loved the addition of “skylights” in the Encore’s ceiling and fans and electrical equipment to the walls to lend a sense of being a real space. The show is organic and feels like the building was  purpose-built for this production, rather than the other way around. (For the uninitiated, the original Broadway production actually imported the workings of a real factory from London to the stage of the Gershwin (then Uris) Theater).

I will leave it to the theater goer to ponder what’s up with the organ-versions of show tunes both before the show and during intermission (some of which are from the golden era of musicals, not from the 40’s). It left me scratching my head.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Sweeney Todd runs through October 22nd at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200. Get them while you can. This is a don’t-miss production.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bloodless, emotionless Sweeney Todd at Encore October 2, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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When you drain the blood out of Sweeney Todd (the current musical at Encore Musical Theatre Company) you drain the emotion out of the piece as well. When the emotion is gone, there isn’t much to this Sondheim masterpiece.

9524_1232198718816_1044573288_727973_5653003_nWalter O’Neil (Sweeney Todd) and Sarah Litzsinger (Mrs. Lovett) “By the Sea”

9524_1232831294630_1044573288_729856_6393171_nSteve DeBruyne (Anthony) and Thalia Schramm (Johanna) — “Kiss Me”

There are some fine things going on this production, but suspense is not one of them. Perhaps the three people in the audience who have never seen this musical, nor the movie adaptation, might find some surprise in the clever book and lyrics, but those of us who know this show backwards and forwards certainly will not.

Entering the theatre, you are at once surrounded by Dan Walkers’s marvelous set. Appropriately subdued and surprisingly colorful when needed, this is a wonderful approach to the set in this blackbox setting. And Kudos to Encore for making everything look great! I loved that the air conditioning vent has now been painted black, and that it looks more like a “theatre” with every visit!

The Sweeney Orchestra is the finest I have heard at the Encore! Congratulations! The 9-piece ensemble plays in-tune, and sounds wonderful — oh that Sondheim music. I did miss the factory whistle in the score, and the production was plagued with the now-typical problem of actors being unable to hear the orchestra, and entrances not being together as they can’t see the conductor. I have to compliment both musical director Tyler Driskill and his entire cast for the best diction I have ever heard in a production of Sweeney (and trust me, I’ve seen dozens of them – professional, amateur, and even high school).

Sarah Litzsinger makes a fine Mrs. Lovett; Walter O’Neil a fine Sweeney. Their scenes together are fun. Mind you, not creepy, but fun. Sue Booth performs wonderful work as The Beggar Woman — how wonderful to see her singing on stage again! Steve DeBruyne proves that there is nothing he can do wrong playing almost any role you might throw at him, including nicely acted Anthony here, and Thalia Schramm is a pretty (if very healthy and not-at-all pale) Johanna.  Paul Hopper turns in an appropriately dry Judge, but Jeff Steinhauer struggles with the difficult score and is generally too nice as the Beadle.

Uneven performances are turned in by others. Scott Longpre at times is just fine at Tobias, at others, not so much. The same can be said of John Sartor’s Pirelli which is over the top, but uneven throughout. I did enjoy his scene in Sweeney’s parlor, though. And Longpre turns in a lovely “Not While I’m Around”.

The ensemble is similar to Okalahoma’s — generally too young, not all of the cast members up to the difficult Sondheim score, and generally of community theatre quality. So far, I have been unimpressed by Encore’s aim to integrate the “best” community based actors with the professionals on stage. In just about every performance I have seen there, the professionals and community ensemble do not mesh well together, and there are large gaps in quality between them.

So that brings me to other issues with the show: this production is one in which the average age of the Londoners seems to be about 15. There are not enough adult men. Most of the visitors to Sweeney’s barber chair are too young to have sprouted whiskers themselves. The show is female-heavy, forcing the few men in the ensemble to play multiple roles – even when they follow one scene to the next: in the most glaring instance, a cast-member just killed on the barber chair is suddenly alive and talking in the very next scene on stage. The entire non-professional cast suffers from pitch problems.

Then there are the costumes. I don’t know what the production team was thinking in mixing modern-day clothing with period pieces, but it doesn’t work. I’ve directed dozens of musicals myself, and partaken in many shows where this “out of time” costuming works — Sweeney Todd is not one of them. Tobias wears t-shirts that announce “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixor” and later “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies”.  The Ensemble is dressed in costumes that look like leftovers from the chorus of Carrie, the Musical. Sweeney looks like a Pirate. Later he wears sunglasses.

Particularly jarring are Johanna’s costumes — lines don’t even make sense the way she is dressed. Playing her own mother earlier in the show, she wears a daydress. Huh? Later, as Johanna, she wears a prep school uniform. If she’s wearing a prep school uniform, it’s implied she is going to school. If she is going to prep school, she is leaving the house — something that Johanna would never be permitted to do by the Judge.

This leads to a greater problem: There is no sense that Johanna is “trapped” in her life with the Judge — in fact, she sings “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” in front of a staircase that would easily take her away from the abusive Judge. Later, instead of Anthony climbing upstairs to see her on her balcony, she uses those same stairs to walk down to the street to meet him. At another point in the production, the Judge’s house moves mysteriously from stage left to stage right. Huh?

My favorite moment? The physical comedy of Sarah Litzsinger’s “By the Sea’ and the wonderfully funny little surprise on her “Oh that was lovely” line just after. Precious comedy that.

But finally — it all boils down to the strange artistic direction choices made in the show. The directing here is uneven — better in intimate moments, but utterly baffling in others. Cast members singing counterpoint in the trio holding choir folders? Exits and entrances from directions that don’t make sense?

And that brings me to the blood. Or lack of blood. Or any creepiness factor at all. This is the G-rated version of Sweeney. Seriously, I’ve seen high school productions of this show that were creepier and scarier. I’m not sure what the problem here is. Is Encore afraid of alienating their Dexter-based audience? Do they not trust that we can handle this show as an audience? If not, why do a show that involves murder, and killing people with a razor knife? Murders are bloodless and clean. Actors stand up and walk away from the chair rather than falling through the trap in the floor. Sweeney’s knife never once glistens with blood.

And Mrs.Lovett never once contemplates strangling Tobias with the knitted muffler she places around his neck.

Without the suspense, the drama is sapped out of the show. That leaves you with an unemotional ending, one in which the audience doesn’t care who has lived and who has died, because we have not been asked to share in the journey — we haven’t cringed at Sweeney’s dark humor as the show progresses, and we haven’t felt Mrs. Lovett’s guilt. Somewhere under that makeup, we need to see that she is trapped in her own big lie, and ultimately feel her humanness and frailty in the final moments. Otherwise, there’s just an oven.

Whether the blood is real (like in the original Broadway production – which went through buckets of red dyed corn syrup every night) or implied in it’s creepy simplicity (one bucket being poured into the other in the recent Broadway revival) there needs to be something. Anything. Make me feel some level of discomfort. Let me wonder how they did it. Let me see the glimmer of red blood as Sweeney flicks his knife through the air. Let me hear the blood pouring from bucket to bucket as the audience goes “yuck” in unison. Anything.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Encore Theatre through October 18th. Tickets an be purchased at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200. The box office is at 3126 Broad Street in Dexter. Call for box office hours.

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On a related note — I want nothing but success for the Encore. Sorry if some of the reviews sound harsh, but when you set out to achieve a lofty goal of professional musical theatre, you shouldn’t need to be judged by community theatre standards.

That being said — the theatre is in need of several things. First — adult men! Please audition for future shows at the Encore! I know you’re out there — I’ve cast you in my musicals. Drag your butt to Dexter and audition.

Second, the theatre can use some donations: black paint (lots of things on walls still need to be painted). Black heavy-duty power extension cords for lighting (black only please, not orange, not green, not blue). A tv monitor system: this includes a tv for the house so that the cast can see the conductor, and cameras at the back of the house so the conductor can see the cast, and cameras in the pit, so that the actors can see the conductor. I’m sure they could use some other things as well — give the theatre a call and see how you can pitch in! Let’s make this work; it’s a gem in the making, and let’s see what we can do to make it even better!

On a final note to the Encore: I will not be reviewing ANNIE, your next production. I’ve seen enough (and directed enough) community theatre productions of this show to last me a lifetime. I am sure it will bring you a bucket load of money from your audiences, and will keep the family-friendly audiences in Dexter happy. But count me out. The professional tours of the show come through Detroit every couple years. That’s the only versions of Annie I am willing to watch anymore. Good luck with your production, see you at 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee!

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today…