“Sweeney Todd,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is a most unconventional musical.
The show is overtly operatic, with little dialogue, a melodramatic storyline and a dependence on ensemble performance to narrate and progress the story.
Its unconventional hero is a homicidal barber out to revenge his wrongful imprisonment and the destruction of his young family. Returning to 19th century London, Todd whittles away at his clientele as the fruits of his labor are processed into meat pies and sold by Todd’s delightfully demented landlady, Mrs. Lovett. Todd lies in wait until the judge that set this madness in motion and who is now the guardian of his daughter, Johanna, walks through his door to receive the closest shave he’s ever had.
And, as is typical of works by Sondheim, this one consists of enigmatic and frequently discordant music and lyrics that, while often void of melody and lacking that hummable quality found desirable in conventional show tunes, still manage to touch the soul while challenging the intellect.
Despite the show’s eccentricities, productions of it still require the same core components found in all musicals: talent on stage and talent behind it. The current production of “Sweeney Todd” at Blank Canvas Theatre has the former in spades but is woefully lacking in the latter.
Patrick Ciamacco embraces all that is dark in the heart of the title character. His Sweeney smolders as his pathological obsession with revenge lies in wait and is never far from the surface. As such, his intense rendition of the disturbing “My Friends” and “Epiphany” – where he discovers and then clarifies his morbid calling – is absolutely brilliant.
Everything Trinidad Snider does as Mrs. Lovett is brilliant. She manages the musical’s dark drama and broad comedy with equal aplomb, but her impeccable comic timing, high-pitched squeals and delightful physicality nearly steals the show during the musical number “By the Sea,” where she fantasizes about going on holiday with a brooding, non-responsive Sweeney.
The other eight featured performers are also superb in voice and presentation, particularly Meg Martinez and Robert Kowalewski as the tragic Johanna and the infatuated Anthony, Devin Pfeiffer as the sweet and simple Tobias, and Brian Altman as the deeply disturbed Judge Turpin.
The show is given superb support by a talented and versatile ensemble, costumer Luke Scattergood, music director Matthew Dolan and his nine-piece off-stage orchestra.
Where this Blank Canvas production derails is in its staging. The company’s confined performance space is always a creative challenge but, under Jonathan Kronenberger’s direction, it gets the better of this production.
Every entrance and exit on the two-tier set that serves as every location for the production requires either ducking below low-hanging pipes from the ceiling or ducking through miniaturized passageways constructed on the stage, which is a constant and unnecessary distraction.
When, on opening night, the first player to enter the stage in the opening moment of the musical walks straight into a pipe, it becomes impossible not to anticipate the next occurrence.
Every bit of action is hampered in some way by Ciamacco’s obtrusive, inaccurate and ill-timed lighting design, which either leaves actors in darkness, obscured by shadows, or saturated in blues, reds and yellows that define their emotions as if the audience needed color-coding for clarification.
Often in this play, multiple actors assumedly in different locations throughout London are on stage to share a musical number. Here, they inexplicably cross in front of or behind one another, which destroys the illusion of separation.
All this results in confusion and cluster in a complex musical that can afford neither.
“Sweeney Todd” asks much of any company taking it on. But for a company with a theater space like this, it begs for a reimagining of its staging that can sidestep physical limitations and take full advantage of unique idiosyncrasies. Blank Canvas missed an opportunity to do more with less.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.