Review by Tamara Cacchione
Many did indeed “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” in the beautiful Taconic Hills Auditorium up in Claverack, NY. This bold and elegant production, produced by The Two of Us Productions and The Roving Actors’ Repertory Ensemble was a captivating and moving theater experience in a busy regional theater season.
When audience members first enter this grand auditorium, they encounter an 18-piece orchestra, a rare treat for a musical playing in community theater in the area, and an indication of the company’s goal of bringing high-quality, full-scale theatrical productions to the local stage. The producers noted in the program that “live full-orchestra music is an integral part of (their) shows & provides the musical support that this show is designed to present to …audiences.” Conducted by director Stephen Sanborn, the orchestra is a true gift in this production. It is thrilling and provoking to hear a strong orchestra underscoring a deeply moving musical, and it is imperative for Sweeney Todd, as music plays throughout much of the action of the production, with unique harmonies and sinister tones that support the dark subject matter of 19th century London.
Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is the tale of a deeply damaged man determined to find some ease of mind by seeking revenge on those who destroyed his family. To give you an idea of what type of resolve Sweeney has, he has escaped prison in Australia to get back to London and find Judge Turpin and the Beadle, whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife and the kidnapping of his daughter. He has literally traveled across oceans to seek revenge. Once arriving back in London, there is no stopping him. Sweeney connects with Mrs. Lovett, whose affection for Sweeney causes her to assist him by adding her own personal flair to his madcap plan to murder those who have hurt him and his loved ones. When Sweeney’s initial plan does not go as he hoped, he uses his anger to murder nearly everyone who sits in his barber chair. What to do with the victims of Sweeney’s sharp knives? Business begins to boom in Mrs. Lovett’s meatpie shop now that the new supply of meat bcomes bountiful. Together, they seek to find happiness- for Lovett, this means happily married to her the murdering barber, perhaps by the sea, while for Sweeney, this means blood to satisfy his desire for retribution.
Director Steve Sanborn and Assistant Director Constance Lopez’s ambitious undertaking of a complex score with such dark and intense life struggles can only succeed with a strong cast and ensemble, and this production’s cast did not disappoint.
In the role of Sweeney Todd was the powerhouse force of Joshuah Patriarco. Patriarco’s strong command of his rich baritone voice and his nuanced choices displayed the depths of Sweeney’s pain and journey in a way that made a murderous barber somehow more humane. From the moment Patriarco arrived on the stage, the fire behind his eyes and full commitment to this bizarre and dark world was palpable, enabling audience members to root for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Patriarco’s performance was intriguing and tittilating while being moving thanks to his subtle shifting of character throughout Sweeney’s time on stage. Patriarco’s bold choices were paired with many precise movements that punctuated his journey from anguished survivor to cold-blooded killer. His range of movements and actions was entrancing to watch, from a sharp and unusual rising from a shallow grave to the smooth and precise slashing of throats, almost a balletic and rhythmic dance.
Constance Lopez’s beguiling Mrs. Lovett was a gift of quirk and charm. Lopez was clearly enjoying herself, as the Lovett character requires in order for her not to seem one-dimensionally twisted and maniacal. Lopez makes the endearing and powerful choice to remain deeply rooted in love, which is evident in her chemistry with the actors around her, in particular with Sweeney and Toby, (a youngster who she encounters through her escapades with Sweeney). Lopez’s Mrs. Lovett provided a light to Sweeney’s darkness that allows the audience a respite from some of the more intense plotlines and subject matter.
Sam Sultan shone as Pirelli, a rival barber. Sultan demonstrated his keen gift for humor with pinache in the song entitled “The Contest”, in which Pirelli brags about his skills as a barber while competing with Sweeney for the closest shave. Sultan found every moment for jocularity possible while remaining true to the character to the point that one wishes that he would repeat his scenes so that one could catch the jokes that rapidly poured forth in his performance.
As the Beggar Woman, Benita Zahn dazzled with humor and pathos. Zahn created an engaging character whose droll oddity belied her darker struggle for survival. This made Zahn’s performance particularly poignant. Zahn’s multi-dimensional choices represented to audience members one important facet of the struggles of the inhabitants of London and demonstrated the survival of the most devastated, those who have the least, (such a home and many of her faculties). It might have been easy to fall into stereotypical choices that audience-members might have laughed at, and while there was humor, the Beggar Woman resonated thanks to Zahn’s dedication to the role and the work that she clearly put in to create a realistic and sympathetic woman who was down on her luck.
Another joy of the production was the beautiful voice and energy of William Flaim as Anthony Hope. Flaim’s renditions of Johanna (both when he first falls in love with her and when he realizes that his new paramour is not free to love whomever she wants), were both poignant and moving. It would be difficult not to root for Flaim’s hopeful ambitions; the character of Anthony stops at nothing to be with the woman he loves while remaining somewhat idealistic and determined in a more pure way than those around him. Flaim’s gleam is a harsh contrast to those who are clawing for survival and any brief balm that might ease their suffering in the dark underbelly of London.
The splendid voice of the striking Isabel Costa was a strength of another the effectiveness of the production. As Johanna, Sweeney’s long lost daughter and the paramour of Anthony, ward of the sinister Judge Turpin, she is called upon to represent the show’s beacon of beauty and hope in an otherwise desolate landscape, and Costa does not disappoint, demonstrating earnest romanticism generating from a bruised heart.
As Judge Turpin, Frank Leavitt was abe to represent the monster who Sweeney blames for the destruction of his family, and turn him into a captivating human being. Leavitt found the vulnerability of the man (as when he attempts a courtship). Of particular note was his haunting rendition with Patriarco of “Pretty Women” and his remarkable and hair-raising monologue as he convinces himself that the best thing for his ward is to wed her.
As Judge Turpin’s diligent henchman, The Beadle, Brian Yorck created a sinister character mixed with a tinge of jollity. Yorck’s choice to bring some geniality to the hard-working bad-guy sidekick allowed The Beadle to become even more deliciously smarmy. Yorck’s smooth voice further enhanced the creep-factor, in songs such as “Parlor Songs”, where Yorck’s suited and efficient singing belies the threat of destruction that he might bring upon the meatpie shop he has come to inspect. At other times, such as in the song “Ladies and Their Sensitivities”, Yorck seemed to be the voice of reason, slowing down some of the destruction that Judge Turpin hopes to force upon his ward, Johanna. Yorck was a delight to watch.
As Toby Ragg, Carmen Lookshire was charming and astute. Her fun and quirky choices were highly entertaining to watch. Lookshire is an actress masterfully in control of her craft in this production; she initially masks Toby’s deeply-rooted pain, and gradually revealed her character’s strong desire for love and ultimate deference to those she loves.
Mark Luening was solidly menacing and effectively domineering as the master of the lunatics asylum, Jonas Fogg.
One would be remiss not to acknowledge the strong ensemble, without which Sondheim productions can devolve into cacaphony; a committed and effective ensemble is essential for any production of Sweeney Todd to be entertaining. It did not disappoint here. Many actors doubled up roles in order to flesh out the world of Victorian London. One standout number was“City on Fire”, in which each actor plunged themselves into the gripping and unorthodox moves of patients in an asylum. Chloe Conway, Lucia Martin, Zach Nayer, Molly Oliviera, Karissa Payson, and Lauren Wicks each created varied characters in scenes such as at the contest between Pirelli and Sweeney, in Mrs. Lovett’s meatpie shop, dancing at a sinister party at Judge Turpin’s abode, and being murdered by Sweeney. William Flaim, Frank Leavitt, Mark Leinung, Carmen Lookshire, Sam Sultan, and Brian Yorck also seamlessly blended into different characters in various scenes to become ensemble as well, which further enhanced the story and the trajectory of Sweeney Todd.
While a capable musician himself, director Steven Sanborn and Assistant Director Constance Lopez emphasized the music in this production by bringing on Paul and Joanne Schubert, as vocal directors, which reflects their respect for the music and a deep need for strong voices in this production. The Schuberts demonstrated masterful skill, guiding the cast through some of the most complex and challenging music written for the stage. Their ability to flesh out both the subtlety and the heat in the score’s vocals was evident in the diverse and rich voices within this production. Sanborn and Lopez’s blocking and choreography further augmented the text, particularly in group scenes where the ensemble was so very important to the story. Costumes, by Kim Mauch further strengthened the grim and mysterious world of this production of Sweeney Todd. With sets developed by Michael Rivenburg, Scenic Art by Michael Virtuoso, and a macabre lighting design, each element of the production seemed to work seamlessly together to support the text.
The Two of Us Productions and RARE Inc. has been a long standing staple in the Hudson Valley theatre scene for decades. If you have not had the opportunity to attend one of their shows, we implore you to do so as their mission to bring quality productions to local audiences is being met with each endeavor. Their 2019 season is not over yet! Mark your calendars for their dinner cruise murder mystery The Science of Murder on Saturday, October 26th, Karaoke night on Saturday, November 2nd, and in conjunction with Hudson Valley Academy for the Performing arts, a presentation of The Nutcracker on Sunday, December 1st. Find out more information about The Two of Us Productions/RARE Inc. by visiting their website: http://stephensanborn.tripod.com/thetwoofusproductions/