AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
from an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Castro and Mercy streets
Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

For proof of Stephen Sondheim's genius, look no further than TheatreWorks' production of his brilliant "Sweeney Todd."

Composer-lyricist Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler have crafted an alternately chilling, lyrical and amusing musical, subtitled "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Director Robert Kelley, who also directed the company's 1992 production, has moved the setting from its traditional Victorian London to 1940 during the German Blitzkrieg. The action takes place in an abandoned factory (set by Andrea Bechert with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt) leading to a subway station, which served as a shelter during the relentless bombing (sound by Jeff Mockus).

Sweeney Todd (David Studwell) is a barber whom a judge banished to Australia on a trumped up charge 15 years ago. Judge Turpin (Lee Strawn) apparently wanted Sweeney out of the way in order to seduce his pretty young wife.

The story opens 15 years later as Sweeney sails back to London to find his wife and daughter. He visits the pie shop of his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross), who has a vacant room upstairs and has saved his razors for him.

Now he can go back to work as a barber. Along the way, he kills the fraudulent Pirelli (Noel Anthony). To dispose of the body, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett cook up the idea of using it for her meat pies Sweeney wants to get rid of the judge the same way.

In the meantime, a handsome young sailor, Anthony (Jack Mosbacher), who befriended Sweeney on their voyage to London, immediately falls in love with Sweeney's daughter, Johanna (Mindy Lym), who is a virtual prisoner in Judge Turpin's home. He has taken her in as his ward and wants to marry her.

Complications ensue. Not everyone survives.

Director Kelley uses a relatively small cast with most of the named characters serving as the chorus. Musical director William Liberatore conducts the scaled down orchestra from the keyboard.

The production is blessed with outstanding singers who deliver Sondheim's songs with the appropriate emotions. And what songs they are -- one highlight after another.

Perhaps the most beautiful song is the haunting "Johanna," sung by Mosbacher as Anthony after he hears Lym singing Johanna's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" in a high, lilting soprano.

Ross as Mrs. Lovett has the show's most amusing songs: "The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest" (sung with Sweeney) and "By the Sea." Ross has terrific comic timing and sings well. Playing Tobias Ragg, who becomes Mrs. Lovett's young assistant, Spencer Kiely sings the sweet "Not While I'm Around" to and with Mrs. Lovett.

Then of course there's the show's anthem, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," sung by the company at the beginning and several times thereafter. The powerful "Mea Culpa" sung by the judge, is eliminated in this production, as it has been in some others.

Besides those already named, other characters are played by Mia Fryvecind Gimenez as the Beggar Woman and Martin Rojas Dietrich as Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin's sidekick.

Although Studwell makes a menacing Sweeney, he sometimes strays slightly off pitch, as in "My Friends" and "Epiphany."

Taken as a whole, though, this is an outstanding production. People seeing it for the first time were bowled over on opening night, while those who have seen it several times before found it as stiringly impressive and exciting as ever. It's a major landmark in American musical theater.

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