“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Sept. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
For tickets call 251-471-1534 or go to joejeffersonplayers.com
Forget light entertainment. If you’re unafraid to dance with the human id to the sounds of a genius, then Joe Jefferson Playhouse (11 S. Carlen St.) is where you should be.
Through Sept. 11, the oldest community theater in Mobile stages “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the Stephen Sondheim operetta cited as one of his masterworks. Since its premiere just over 35 years ago, it has enjoyed numerous worldwide revivals, translation to film and enshrinement in the American theater canon.
Though Todd claims to despise its Victorian London setting, the titular character is as much a part of it as industrial callousness and grimy street beggars. A victim of upper-crust skullduggery, he seeks bloody revenge and bides time with wanton slaughter and the resulting meat pies gobbled down by an unwitting public.
Though darkly humorous, this is a relentlessly sinister tale. There is flagellation, sexual assault, insanity and plenty of murder. Even moments tinged with brief lightness give way to brutality as one scene buoyant with young love and sweet birdsong reveals.
Directed by Dr. Patrick Jacobs, whose day job as head of the University of Mobile voice department is evident. The voices onstage are full and impressive, all in able resonance.
The five-member orchestra — playing eight instruments — is deceptive. Buried in a small pit, they sound like a larger outfit and perform flawlessly.
The haunting opening number sets the tone with angular lines reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s work for Hitchcock. The introductory ballad is first ominous, then bracing — helped in large part by stark, then sanguine lighting — and when the ensemble reaches its full-throated peak the psychological and sociological depths are felt.
Not long after, a masquerade ball reaches macabre delirium as much for one character’s foreboding disguise as its repugnant action. Kubrick fans might find it especially eerie.
Cory Olson plays the namesake barber and is in good voice. Both his lines and lyrics reach across the 320-seat house.
As anyone familiar with the play knows, as much or more of its weight is carried by meat-pie baker Mrs. Lovett. Since Todd is consumed by singular obsession and vengeance, his range is more limited. Even his odd moments of complexity are spent wistfully stoking his depression.
In comparison, Lovett is energetic, funny and as endearing as a cannibal can be. Lesley Roberts is a great cast in this role as she manages an abundant and quirky personality without chewing scenery. Roberts’ vague resemblance to Lynn Redgrave helps sell the British overtones just that much more.
Jackson Henson’s clear voice as the young sailor Anthony Hope stands out in the cast. Even when joined with others, he rings out from the group.
Elizabeth Bemis makes an ethereal Johanna. Though faint and unclear at first, her voice grows far stronger at its top end and seems best in moments she’s allowed that freedom.
As Judge Turpin, Richard Coarsey does well tackling one of the most loathsome characters of the American stage. He shows admirable boldness in one uncomfortable scene that unsettled seasoned professionals in other versions.
Always lively and appealing, Gene Murrell inhabits Judge Turpin’s villainous malefactor Beadle Bamford. His voice is bolstering and his elocution spot on.
Kate Lotito Arrington employs wonderful range as she switches between the Beggar Woman’s more pitiful and tawdry demeanors. Her shift from angelic soprano to gruff tramp is the night’s first big tickle while crucifying the sailor’s fanciful dreams of London.
Don’t let the cross-gendered casting for another chief role throw you. Two of the major stage revivals have pulled the same switcheroo as well because it worked.
As mentioned, the voices all sound fantastic. The only issue might be clarity and at times lyrics were faded or garbled. Occasionally when singers were on the set’s upper levels their voices got lost.
The issue is that so much of the libretto in this play is carried in those lyrics. There is little spoken dialogue and some of the finer points, especially the humor, can fade without every tidbit of those sung lines.
My only real regret bloomed during the initial number, awash in the scarlet stage light, with ominous score and foreboding choir filling the air. This would have been ideal for the last three weekends before Halloween.
A glance at the JJP schedule showed the logistical impossibility of it. The next production won’t start until early November.
Just consider this play an early start to autumn, an eye past hurricane season’s apex. It might have been a sultry and thick summer night when I left the theater but it was already October in my heart. Thanks for the relief, JJP!
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