It has been more than a quarter-century since Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" opened on Broadway to critical acclaim as "a staggering theater spectacle and more fun than a graveyard on the night of the annual skeleton's ball," according to Douglas Watt in the New York Daily News. As originally directed by Harold Prince, it was indeed a spectacle with its massive set, constructed from an old foundry from Rhode Island, and its large cast. It won eight Tonys, including Best Musical.
Over the years, it has seen numerous touring and regional theater productions. The San Francisco Symphony did a memorable 2001 concert version with George Hearn as Sweeney Todd, Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, Lisa Vroman as Johanna, Davis Gaines as Anthony, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. This production was videotaped for a later TV broadcast.
Now Foothill Music Theatre and its ever-resourceful director, Jay Manley, have taken on the challenges of this masterful musical and have proved once again how great the show is and how amazing this college-community company is. Moreover, FMT is staging it in its intimate Playhouse, which often puts the performers within literal reach of the audience. However, thanks to Joe Ragey's flexible set and Kurt Landisman's lighting design, along with Manley's direction and Joe Duffy's musical staging, the show works in this small space yet seems as grand as earlier versions. Costumes are by Amy Zsadanyi-Yale.
Based on Christopher Bond's adaptation of an old English thriller, which in turn was based on a true story, "Sweeney Todd" takes place in 18th century London. A barber, Sweeney Todd (James Monroe Iglehart), has escaped from a penal colony in Australia, where he was sentenced by the venal Judge Turpin (Mike R. Padilla), who lusted after the barber's wife and took in their infant daughter as his ward. Seeking revenge against the judge, Sweeney sets up shop above the pie shop of his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Diana Torres Koss). After missing a chance to kill the judge while shaving him, Sweeney embarks on a murderous spree that finds him slitting the throats of many of his customers and sending them tumbling into Mrs. Lovett's bakehouse, where they're converted into meat pies.
Horrible as this premise may be, Wheeler's book gives it a Dickensian flavor with implicit commentary on the plight of the lower classes during that time, and Sondheim gives it such a brilliant score and complex lyrics that the show takes on operatic proportions. He infuses it with arias that range from the hauntingly beautiful "Johanna," sung by Austin Ku as Anthony Hope, the sailor who befriends Sweeney and falls in love with his daughter, to the soaring "Epiphany," sung by Iglehart as Sweeney.
Then there are duets such as "Pretty Women," sung by Iglehart and Padilla, and "Not While I'm Around," sung by Koss and Sean Patrick O'Connor as Tobias, Mrs. Lovett's young assistant, as well as larger ensembles such as "Quartet," sung by Padilla, Ku, Keite Davis as Johanna and Martin Rojas-Dietrich as Beadle Bamford, the judge's henchman. Choruses include the dramatic "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and "City on Fire." On a lighter note, there are the pun-filled "Priest," sung by Iglehart and Koss, "By the Sea" and "The Worst Pies in London," both sung by Koss.
The entire ensemble is excellent in the choral numbers, showing careful attention to diction, a credit to musical director-keyboardist Brandon Adams, who also conducts the five-person orchestra. Each person in the ensemble also creates realistic characters who stay fully involved, adding to the show's drama.
Manley has assembled a terrific cast, led by Iglehart as a formidable Sweeney and Koss as the wily Mrs. Lovett. Both are Equity guest artists. Ku as Anthony, Davis as Johanna, Padilla as the judge, Rojas-Dietrich as Beadle and O'Connor as Tobias also sing and act on a professional level. Also noteworthy are Lane McKenna as the crazed Beggar Woman and Joe Colletti as Adolfo Pirelli, barber and seller of a hair potion, extolled and condemned in "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir."
And so with "Sweeney Todd," Manley and his compatriots add to their impressive list of musical theater accomplishments.
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