The stately Edwardian charm of the Kavinoky Theatre is transformed to 19th century London, evidenced by eerie smoke drifting from the under an animated scrim. That’s your first impression of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” onstage until September 30. It’s a foreboding and mysterious way to begin a riveting, vaguely disturbing, and thoroughly enjoyable production. Kavinoky picked a phenomenal way to begin a new season.
. . .nothing short of extraordinary.
This is a singer’s show. The plot is strong and intense, and it’s the music that leads it along. Like Sondheim’s earlier work “Passion,” this feels like a period opera for a contemporary audience.
The rigorous Sondheim score requires every member of the cast to have outstanding vocal chops. This cast didn’t disappoint. Like last season’s “Mamma Mia!,” (probably the only similarity between these two shows) there were plenty of familiar faces – usually seen in leading or featured roles – in the ensemble. Charmagne Chi’s soprano soars when the score permits. She, with Kelly Copps, Ben Michael Moran, Dudley Joseph, and the rest of troupe have powerful and exquisite vocal blend.
The featured actors are flat out magnificent, showing range and dynamics that showcase Sondheim’s vocal gymnastics. Matt Witten as Sweeney, Loraine O’Donnell as Mrs. Lovett, Anthony Lazzaro as Anthony Hope, Aleks Makejs in her Buffalo debut singing role, and Peter Palmisano as the creepy Judge Turpin, pull you into this story with every note and spin you into the web of deceit and revenge.
Sweeney’s story unfolds as the ragtag street people of London pull down the scrim to reveal a dank and dreary cityscape. He is fresh off the boat from a dozen years away, and while his fresh-faced traveling companion, a sailor aptly named Anthony Hope, is excited to be there, Sweeney’s feelings about London run deeper, “its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit and it goes by the name of London,” he sings. Matt Witten’s resonant voice and solid diction hammer at Sondheim’s staccato rhythms and clipped lyrics. This may be his finest performance yet, with steely resolve under a gentleman’s reserve, and a voice that handles every elegant and complicated riff that Sondheim wrote. It’s perfection.
The same can be said about Loraine O’Donnell’s portrayal of Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst pies in London. She’s bold and brassy with her big voice filling the house. Listen closely to her act one song “Wait:” her character is reflective, her voice is rich, lower, and thinking again of Sondheim’s “Passion,” when she played Fosca on the O’Connell & Company stage years ago. She and Witten nail the comedic duet “A Little Priest,” too. The story is so intense you almost forget to laugh at the clever humor and wordplay. She can “take” a song, too: she’s sweet and loving when young Tobias (Lucas DeNies) shows his devotion singing the tender “Not While I’m Around.”
It’s Malejs who is is the surprise of the evening in a singing role as the prescient beggar woman. She creeps about the city, somehow all knowing that something is even more wrong is this grimy, impoverished, corrupt corner of the world. Her “Beggar Woman’s Lullaby” will break your heart.
Director John Fredo expertly moves this large cast around stage, and his actors all do double duty moving David King’s set pieces about, from pie shop to insane asylum, to street scenes. Moody lighting designed by Brian Cavanaugh, a larger-than-expected orchestra led by Allan Paglia, and plenty of stage-tech magic add layers to the production.
This is an ambitious production and Kavinoky’s team is nothing short of extraordinary. Make this the first show of this season’s local theatre season journey.
Running Time: 2 Hours 30-minutes with a 20-minute intermission.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs until September 30, 2018 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.