Sunday, October 12, 2014

Theatreworks: Sweeney Todd ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Stephen Sondheim allows tinkering with the settings of his stories, as long as you don't change a word or a note of melody. This time, Robert Kelley and Theatreworks have set the show during the blitz at the beginning of World War II and the action opens in a factory being used as a bomb shelter. But time and place matter little. The story is right out of Shakespeare: revenge driving a man to madness, with everyone ending up lying in a pile on the stage.

Andrea Bechert's abandoned factory leading to a subway station grabs our attention right away. In walk David Studwell as Sweeney Todd and Jack Mosbacher as Anthony Hope. The cast follows and we hear one of the great Broadway Opening Numbers: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Reprised over and again with additional lyrics, this is the show's musical glue, the tune we are humming not only as we walk out of the theater but the next morning as well. There are many other standout numbers, including Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) singing "The Worst Pies in London," Anthony Hope's ballad "Johanna" and the hi-jinx of "A Little Priest," sung by an ebullient Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett as they realize just how successful their little venture might become.

Yes, the song "Johanna" and the balcony scene in which it is set rips off West Side Story; yes, close your eyes and the music and long cadences of lyrics might make you think you're listening to "Into the Woods," but in all fairness Sondheim is usually stealing from himself. Think of it as a compliment.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sweeney Todd" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Writing, acting and singing deserve one star each, with the last star for Robert Kelley's faultless direction and staging (this is a Broadway production done successfully on a smaller stage). The BANGLE goes to Beadle Bamford, played by Martin Rojas Deitrich, whose body does not prepare you for the magnificent lyrical tenor emanating from it. We loved meeting the Beadle.

"Sweeney Todd"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Nov. 2

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