Sunday, April 16, 2017

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET • Stray Dog Theatre

Anybody hungry?
Stray Dog Theatre invites audiences to “Attend the tale...” in their latest offering, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, meaty musical thriller, Sweeney Todd. With a 2007 film version and contemporary stage variations, it’s a welcomed opportunity to get the chance to see this classic onstage in its more “OG” version -- though that wasn’t its original form.

The story of a murderous barber was introduced in a “Penny Dreadful” -- ghastly publications that were popular in the Victorian era. The serial, originally called “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” emerged many years and adaptations later, when Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical version debuted in 1979, winning eight Tony Awards.

There’s solid casting here, starting with Jonathan Hey in the title role. His imposing, brooding Sweeney will unnerve you -- in a good way. After being sent to the clink for life on a bogus charge, Sweeney escapes after 15 years and returns to London, hoping to discover the fate of his wife and daughter.
Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Lavonne Byers)
and Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey).
Photo credit: John Lamb
He is also determined to exact revenge on Judge Turpin, who had Sweeney sent down so he could have Sweeney’s wife for himself. Hey’s strong baritone and acting chops take you along into his descent into hell-bent vengeance, with props for his pale-faced, dark-eyed make-up design. His willing accomplice is Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a role filled by another great pick, Lavonne Byers. Lovett owns a pitiful meat-pie shop and she’s Sweeney’s biggest fan-girl. After teaming up, Sweeney’s retribution is indulged while Lovett’s pie shop business is invigorated. No spoilers... Byers lands all of her comedic beats, and handles her musical numbers well, kicking her voice up when the score gets high. Some of her expressions alone are worth the price of admission, and their "A Little Priest" is a gem.

Vocal standouts include Kay Love as the woeful and erratic Beggar Woman, Eileen Engel’s Johanna, who tackles the challenging phrasing well, along with her beau, Cole Gutmann as an open-faced Anthony. Mike Wells as Judge Turpin’s right-hand man, Beadle Bamford, is also impressive vocally -- his “Parlor Songs” number is a treat. The cast is rounded out by Tyler Cheatem’s flamboyant Adolfo Pirelli, Gerry Love as the unscrupulous Judge Turpin and Connor Johnson, who does a fantastic job as Toby -- an orphaned street kid who ends up hawking for Mrs. Lovett’s pie business.

Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Lavonne Byers),
Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey)
Adolfo Pirelli (Tyler Cheatem) and ensemble.
Photo credit: John Lamb
The ensemble sounds layered and deep, and all of those iconic big numbers like, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and its reprises, "God, that's Good!”, and "City on Fire”, shine. Also, huge props to Kimmie Kidd and Stephanie Merritt for adding their clear soprano voices overtop of those numbers. They're kicking' it.

Being a Sondheim show, this score is no joke. Complex music and tight lyrics make his musicals challenging. Music director, Stray Dog vet Chris Petersen, keeps his eight-piece band pretty tight, but the orchestra and cast were occasionally out of pocket, but it’s a minor quibble, sure to smooth out over the course of the run.

Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey)
and Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Lavonne Byers).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Rob Lippert’s set has rotating portions that hint at the bakehouse and reveal Sweeney’s upstairs tonsorial parlor, bathed in lighting designer, Tyler Duenow’s purple and pinks. Ryan Moore’s costume design suggests a dirty, 19th century London, and all of these elements, along with Stray Dog’s aisle-roaming ensemble, come together to great effect.

Under Justin Been's perfectly paced direction, if you’ve never seen Sweeney Todd onstage, this is the time to check it out. It runs at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22. Get your tickets now, because it will sell out!


SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 22 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, additional performance 8pm Wednesday, April 19

"City on Fire" Cast of Stray Dog’s Sweeney Todd
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast
Anthony Hope: Cole Gutmann
Sweeney Todd: Jonathan Hey
Beggar Woman: Kay Love
Mrs. Nellie Lovett: Lavonne Byers
Johanna Barker: Eileen Engel
Judge Turpin: Gerry Love
Beadle Bamford: Mike Wells
Tobias Ragg: Connor Johnson
Adolfo Pirelli: Tyler Cheatem
Fogg: Scott Degitz-Fries

Ensemble
Angela Bubash
Ted Drury
Laura Megan Deveney
Kimmie Kidd
Stephanie Merritt
Kevin O’Brien
Belinda Quimby
Benjamin Sevilla

1979 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street artwork
Creative
Dramaturge: Sarajane Alverson
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Stage Manager: Robert M. Kapeller
Scenic Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Ryan Moore

The Band
Clarinet: Kelly Austerman
Violin: Steve Frisbee
Trumpet: Bill Hershey
French Horn: Liz Kuba
Cello: Michaela Kuba
Music Director/Piano: Chris Petersen
Bass: M. Joshua Ryan
Percussion: Joe Winters

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