The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has taken up temporary residence on Pogue Street. Raleigh Little Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd opened Friday, providing the sold-out crowd with laughter, tears, and thrills. Director Patrick Torres has drawn the focus of this production to spiritual and religious symbolism. While past productions have emphasized concepts such as the breakdown of ordered society or the sheer gory horror of the story, Torres has brought the consequences of choosing vengeance over mercy to the fore, making this a more personal production. The spiritual focus was perhaps most clearly evident in Chasta Hamilton Calhoun's choreography, but it was certainly reinforced throughout the play.
Vicki Olson's costumes are very narrative driven, and strongly highlight the change in the various characters' material circumstances between Act I and II. The set design by Miyuki Su is dark without being bland, and utilizes a variety of textures, levels, and angles to keep visual interest high despite minimal set changes. Cailen Waddell's lighting design acts almost as a narrator, highlighting subtle moments of character development as well as proactively managing a variety of focal points on a complex set.
Perhaps due to opening night jitters, Act I came across as somewhat forced and overacted; that said, Sweeney's narrative power is much stronger in Act II and can stand up to pretty much any level of dramatic passion. As the cast settled into their roles and the story built towards its terrifying climax, the overall unity and effectiveness of the production increased considerably. The final scenes in the asylum and the bakehouse were truly chilling, especially Tobias' disturbing, murderous Pat-a-Cake ramblings.
David Henderson (Sweeney Todd) brought a lighter, more human side to a generally demonic role. He gave Todd a thoroughly sane treatment rather than taking a half-crazed approach: less scary initially, but much more disturbing in the long run. Rachel Pottern (Johanna) and Edward Freeman (Antony) played the two lovers with sweetness and intense passion — Pottern's upper vocal register is just light enough for her bird-like songs without being wispy. Jess Barbour (Beggar Woman) played an odd role — a central character but not a lead — while maintaining an important level of suspense.
In terms of villains, Joel Rainey (Judge Turpin) played the "creepy old man" role a little uncomfortably well. Brian Westbrook (The Beadle) was hateful, smarmy, and everything else you want a villain sidekick to be. His amusing rendition of "Parlor Songs" was especially memorable. Areon Mobasher's Adolfo Pirelli had the audience in stitches (even after his character was fatally stabbed, which is pretty impressive).
Two of the actors in the cast deserve special mention. Rose Higgins played the raunchy, opportunistic, amoral Mrs. Lovett with an absolutely essential sense of humor. Mrs. Lovett is the anchor of prosaic reality in Sweeney Todd's bloody visions of vengeance, and she serves the same purpose for the audience. Higgins played Mrs. Lovett as devious, goofy, and satirical — but always genuinely funny. She provided a much needed comedic foil for all the horror of the rest of the story. Additionally, Ben Pluska (Tobias Ragg), a high school sophomore, is an actor that local audiences should keep an eye on as his career progresses. Tobias sings "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," a difficult tune demanding comedic timing as well as stellar diction, and "Not While I'm Around," one of the loveliest and most touching songs in the show. Pluska played Tobias' innocence and misplaced devotion to a T, and sang with a depth of musical maturity beyond his years.
Julie Florin, music director and pianist, managed to pare down a large orchestration to a small string-based ensemble. While a lot of subtleties of tone color were lost, the offstage group allowed for more musical flexibility, which enabled Florin to adapt to the action (and at times errors) occurring onstage. While there were occasional issues with sound quality, the mix was solid and every actor could be heard throughout the show.
This is a show that is only going to get better as the cast and crew get a few performances under their belts. Get your tickets soon; it's a comparatively "little" room!
Raleigh Little Theatre's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through Sunday, March 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.