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Salt Lake City Weekly Revenge, Razors and Rolling Pins

Sweeney Todd is a sharp masterpiece, but PTC's production has dulled edges.

By Scott C. Morgan

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Anyone who loves musical theater and opera knows how easily music can manipulate human emotions. And anyone familiar with Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street knows that composer Stephen Sondheim is a mastermind when those basic human emotions happen to be revenge and obsession.

When Sondheim announced that he was planning to turn the English urban legend of Sweeney Todd into a musical, very few people thought it would succeed. Even Angela Lansbury, who starred in and eventually went on to win a Tony Award for Sweeney Todd, thought that it would be a marvelous flop.

But through the brilliance of Sondheim's music, Hugh Wheeler's adept book, and Harold Prince's Brechtian staging, Sweeney Todd was proclaimed to be a musical theater masterpiece by critics when it premiered in 1979. Although Sweeney Todd failed to turn a profit during its initial Broadway run, many critics still cite it as the last truly great American musical.

Set in 19th-century London, Sweeney Todd is a dark and foreboding tale of an obsessive and revenge-bent barber who slits people's throats while his neighbor disposes of the bodies by baking them into meat pies. While it is not a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, its uniqueness over traditional musical theater fare makes it worth seeing. And that's even if the production at hand occasionally falters in delivering the goods of Sweeney Todd's beautifully dark music and complex plot.

So you have to admire Pioneer Theatre Company for taking the risk to open its season with a musical about cannibalism. Not only was it a risk to alienate PTC's typically conservative audiences, but also because Sweeney Todd is such a difficult musical to produce.

Director Charles Morey clearly made a good stab at Sweeney Todd, and his work is effective most of the time. Unfortunately, the production occasionally moves along at a clunky pace, and fails to flow seamlessly at times.

Sometimes Rob Odorisio's sophisticated, but slow set appears to be at fault, while other times the slow tempo of the orchestra under the direction of James Prigmore seems to slow the production down.

A taste of revenge: Mary Ellen Ashley (Mrs. Lovett) and Michael Medeiros (Sweeney Todd) Star in PTC's version of the dark, comic musical.
On opening night, the ensemble was apparently nervous and jittery, frequently flubbing a lyric here and there. Although one is tempted to forgive some of the occasional slip-ups from the performers (Sondheim's music is some of the most difficult to perform), one shouldn't, especially when you consider the professional caliber of the production. But despite the shaky start, many performers were still able to shine through the performance.

As Sweeney Todd, Michael Medeiros gives a stiff, muted performance that would probably work better in a smaller theater than PTC's cavernous hall. Although Medeiros frighteningly makes Sweeney like an every-day Joe, his work doesn't quite measure up to the size and scale of the production, particularly after Sweeney has his "Epiphany" that mankind deserves to die.

Sweeney's entrepreneurial neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, is wonderfully played by Mary Ellen Ashley, bringing the right amount of comic relief and simple-mindedness to the macabre proceedings. Michael Mandell's turn as the dandy, villainous Beadle oozes all over with exuberance, while Danny Gurwin as Tobias delivers an honest and sympathetic performance.

Gurwin's protective ballad, "Not While I'm Around," finely sung to Mrs. Lovett brings an unexpected touch of innocence to the production. But the innocence is deceptive, for moments later Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney sing the same tune as they try to hunt Tobias down and murder him.

Despite the uneven production, these brilliantly ironic moments of Sondheim's masterpiece hauntingly have their powerful effect. The duet "Pretty Women" beautifully soars, even though the song is sung as Sweeney plans to kill the lecherous Judge Turpin (played nicely by Robert Peterson). And the witty, cleverly-rhymed song "A Little Priest" (a list of professions that make up the meat pies) is almost worth the price of admission itself.

But where Sondheim's musical sophistication becomes really apparent is when many earlier songs are reprised in the grisly and climactic finale. On opening night, the audience sat transfixed as the body-count piled up and the musical reached its tragic conclusion.

As the members of the ensemble appear to reprise "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," Sondheim's powerfully disturbing message that revenge is an ugly human emotion that lies inside every person is heard loud and clear.

Although the audience failed to give the performance a standing ovation, like they would immediately after a performance of Les Misérables with its "redemptive power-of-love" message, Sweeney Todd's rhapsody on revenge, obsession and corruption is just as powerful, if not more potent. While Sweeney Todd may not sweep an audience to its feet, it continues to linger on long after the performance.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays until Oct. 4 at Pioneer Theatre Company, located at 300 S. 1340 East. Call 581-6961 for ticket information.


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