Monday, September 8, 2014

Theatre On Fire

Theatre On Fire

By Tom Wachunas 

    You’d think that a musical with all the towering anger and darkness of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street would naturally demand a venue of sufficiently large dimensions to vent its blistering intensity. So if the decision by the Canton Players Guild to eschew a mainstage spectacle and mount the work in the intimacy of its downstairs arena theater may seem counterintuitive, in retrospect it was also a stroke of creative genius. This production is magnificently realized in every way by a wonderful, gifted 21-member cast under the inspired directing by Jonathan Tisevich.
   The blunt simplicity of the angular wooden platforms and ramps (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen), along with the expressive lighting (designed by Scott Sutton) perfectly conjure 19th century London’s gloomy side streets. Herein the grizzly story of Sweeney Todd unfolds like a raging wildfire, beginning with the straitjacketed character of Tobias (Matthew Heppe) at center stage, corpses strewn about the periphery. With swollen, sad eyes and quivering voice, he intones the opening words of the doleful Ballad of Sweeney Todd, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and the ensemble joins in, “he served a dark and angry god…”
    With the constancy of a death knell, pieces of that anthem are threaded throughout the performance. Much of the complex musical score is colored by a tonal dissonance that casts haunting aural shadows on the proceedings. It’s an understandably daunting challenge for singers, and one very well met by the entire cast – lead players and ensemble alike – as well as the excellent nine-member off-stage orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.  
    Once a happily married barber with a beautiful wife and baby girl, Sweeney Todd (Micah Harvey) was unjustly convicted by the malicious and covetous Judge Turpin (David Everett). After fifteen years Todd escapes his prison in Australia, returns to London, and is soon told that his wife is gone and his teenage daughter, Johanna (Rachel Balko), has become a ward of the lascivious Turpin. Driven to wreak vengeance on Turpin and his cruel right-hand man, Beadle (Greg Emanuelson), Todd hatches a monstrous plan with his newfound partner, the conniving Mrs. Lovett (Heidi Swinford), owner of a bake shop that sells pies filled with cat meat. She reveals Todd’s precious barber’s implements that she’s been keeping during his prison exile, further sharpening his steely resolve as he addresses his razors in the chilling My Friends.
    Whether together or separately, Micah Harvey’s Sweeney and Heidi Swinford’s Mrs. Lovett are deliciously animated. He with his sonorous voice like thunder and menacing eyes like caves, and she with her indefatigably naughty, impish manner, provide remarkable operatic thrust to the production. The raucous punning in A Little Priest at the end of Act I is a hilarious showstopper wherein the pair proposes to make meat pies out of citizens in various professions. Sweeney vows to give them all the closest – and last – shaves they’ll ever have.
    Others among the many memorable passages here include Rachel Balko’s sweet soprano rendering of Green Finch and Linnet Bird, wherein the confined Johanna identifies with caged songbirds and muses, “…teach me how to sing. If I cannot fly, let me sing.” Soon after, Jimmy Ferko, in his role of Anthony, who is deeply smitten with and vows to rescue Johanna, sings the charming ballad Johanna with touching urgency. Equally moving is Matthew Heppe’s portrayal of the endearingly nervous street boy, Tobias, as he pledges his undying loyalty to Mrs. Lovett in Not While I’m Around. Daryl Robinson is delightfully eccentric as Adolfo Pirelli, a con man and blackmailer who pushes Sweeney a bit too far. And as the beggar woman, Stephanie Cargill is a riveting, frenzied presence. She’s a spying banshee haunting the shadows, prone to sexual solicitation – seeing, hearing and knowing too much.       
    When did this 1979 Sondheim masterwork ever stop speaking to the horrific predicaments of humans in too many places across our world? The turbulent, gripping finale of the story is a sobering reminder that Sweeney Todd’s “dark and angry god” is his own prideful invention - an impotent response to the searing pain of stolen dreams. He doesn’t “serve” such a god so much as surrender to it, and to no good purpose. Yet still, somewhere beyond the cacophonous, bloody end, it’s the back story of Johanna and Anthony, deceptively naïve on its surface, that hopefully continues to sing. Attend the tale…      

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton. Suggested for mature audiences. Shows THROUGH SEPTEMBER 21, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets $18. Order at (330) 453-7617 or at 

   PHOTOS, by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Micah Harvey; Micah Harvey and Heidi Swinford; Jimmy Ferko and Rachel Balko; Matthew Heppe

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