Friday, October 6, 2017

'Sweeney' past and present: How The Encore's production ranks with earlier versions (and I bet they'll love the answer)

Sarah Briggs and David Moan

As regular readers may recall, I've said many times that Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is my all-time favorite musical. (I've also said that on alternate days of the week, my favorite is A Little Night Music, also a Sondheim classic. But we're focusing on the former today and not the latter.)

My love affair with the show began with a trip to Toronto in 1980 specifically to see the First National Tour starring the great Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. As you might expect, it was an amazing production and a memorable one, well worth the four-hour drive each way and an overnight hotel stay.

Since then, I've seen countless productions - some great, some so-so, and one or two I've mostly forgotten. But many local productions had their moments of excellence, too.

I'll never forget The (late, lamented) Abreact's 2007 production in its Greektown loft, slimmed down to a cast of 13 and one musician in order to fit the show into a space that actually was someone's living room. Although the overall character work was likely the best I've seen, many of the singing voices were not. Frank Sawa's "emotionally taut" performance as Sweeney, however, dominated the stage (which, given the fact that the audience was mere inches away, also needed to be tightly controlled, which it was), and I suspect this is when my deep respect for the work of Linda Rabin Hammel (as the Beggar Woman) really took off. (She and her husband, Mark, who was spectacular as Judge Turpin, had the best voices by far.)

Not to be outdone, the touring production that came to Detroit's Fisher Theatre in 2009 was also a slimmed down version - this time to only 10 performers. And those 10 also served as the show's musicians. It was an unusual concept to be sure, but one that was well executed. Most striking for me was the production's superb lighting design, which I said in my review was "so intuitive and expressive that it could almost be considered the show's 11th character." I've never seen the show lit so well.

And then we come to The Encore Musical Theatre Company, which apparently loves the show so much it's become its first-ever major revival. Both productions, as different as they are, are equally noteworthy. But is one better than the other?

Founding artistic director Dan Cooney stepped up to the plate first, with a 2009 production that dug "into the story's characters" to find "all sorts of gems to develop." And he succeeded at that quite well. Then he packed the show with "uniformly excellent singers" and hired Dan Walker to reconfigure the space to include "multiple levels, many doors, raised walkways across the left of the house and space above and behind the audience" to make adequate room for him and his 23 performers to work with.

But what performances he and musical director Tyler Driskill coaxed out of their cast! My highest praise was heaped upon Sara Litzsinger as Mrs. Lovett, which I sad was "my favorite interpretation since Angela Lansbury tackled the role a few decades back. Sure, she has a screw loose, but Litzsinger puts a lively spring in Lovett’s step, and wraps her in a sweet and charming goofiness that’s irresistibly delicious." And I meant it! (Litzsinger later won a Wilde Award for her performance.)

Walter ONeil's Sweeney was an interesting choice for the role. He "broods and allows his anger to bubble tightly inside, all the while waiting for the appropriate time to let it loose," I said in my review. "And what he lacks in height – he’s probably the shortest Sweeney I’ve ever seen – is far surpassed by a powerfully imposing, yet quiet intensity that always lurks behind his every glance."
And then there was Paul Hooper's dynamite performance as Judge Turpin, who to this day is still my all-time favorite in that role. (Now located on the West Coast, the uber-talented Hopper earned 13 Wilde Award nominations and two wins during his time here, which places him in a very elite company of theater artists.)

My only disappointments with the show had to do with "the artistic way in which the suddenly deceased" were removed from the barber shop and "the lack of blood - squirting or otherwise." So all in all, I thought it was a mighty fine effort from a young, first-year company trying to establish its reputation in the crowded Southeast Michigan/Washtenaw County market.

Apparently others thought so as well. Since only about one-third of new businesses survive until their 10th anniversary, I'd say The Encore Musical Theatre has certainly established strong roots since its inaugural season. And of all the shows from that year to revive, Sweeney Todd - as the most complicated, but maybe not the most popular decision sales-wise - is the one to pick if a producer's goal is to show off what they've learned in the intervening years. (Another production of Annie would make me shudder.)

So how does the current production compare to its predecessor? How's this for high praise: It's probably the best production I've seen so far at The Encore.

For starters, rarely have I seen such a large production - it has 21 actors and seven musicians - run with such clockwork precision. Director/choreographer Matthew Brennan's concept places the action on a factory floor, and every scene change flows like an assembly line, as people and set pieces enter, move about and exit in a most orderly fashion. One can almost see the conveyor belts above moving the actors across the stage, ensuring no one gets in another's way.

Even more striking are the automaton-like blank looks on the faces of the cast (the factory workers) as they set the stage - and more so when those not involved in a scene stare blankly ahead. Never is the focus lost, nor is attention drawn away from the action taking place around them. In fact, I found myself watching chorus members Gayle Martin and Dan Morrison quite a bit - they always seemed to end up somewhere in my direct line of vision - and never did I see their eyes wander or their faces show any expression other than robotic stares. And given the fact that Brennan's set design includes audience members sitting on the left and right sides of the stage, that's far more difficult to accomplish than what you might expect.

But once the chorus is called to duty as part of the story, they spring to life with great energy and their voices blend into delicious harmonies (which isn't always easy to accomplish with Sondheim's score), with the result being a fine effort by all involved.

The production's overall success, however, hinges on the performances of four specific actors. And here Brennan and The Encore acquit themselves quite well.

Keith Kalinowski, whose work I've enjoyed for several years, has the look, feel and voice to bring the terrible Judge Turpin to life. And Billy Eric Robinson wears the emotions of young Toby on his sleeve, the result of which breaks your heart.

But the most important relationship - and the one that has to work - is between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett: If it's not believable, the story falls apart. And here's where Brennan's concept takes an unusual twist.

In many productions, Sweeney is portrayed as a man victimized by and obsessed with his past who is teetering on the brink of an explosion. He seethes; he's paces like a caged animal, or an animal on the hunt waiting to strike. His intensity is palpable and ever present.

Not so in The Encore's production. With angel-faced, innocent-looking David Moan in the role of Sweeney, such an approach would likely not work. Instead, it's a more measured interpretation; a more nuanced one. This is a Sweeney who is truly focused on his ultimate goal, which means he's very much in control of his emotions, and he's willing to wait till the time is right before he strikes.

This also makes him thoroughly oblivious to the romantic advances of Mrs. Lovett - and of all the productions of Sweeney I've seen over the decades, this dichotomy is best explored here.

Working within Brennan's concept, Sarah Briggs - who is now my all-time favorite Mrs. Lovett because of this production - has great fun digging into the nooks and crannies of the script to find every fiber of Mrs. Lovett's emotional state. Her Lovett uses every tool in the book to seduce her prey, but nothing seems to work. So one can't help but wonder: Does Sweeney really care for her? Or is he simply using her to accomplish his primary goal? It's an important question - and it's one that is far more obvious here than in many past productions.

The result, then, is this: Together and separate, Moan and Briggs are dynamite, each with an amazing voice and stage presence. And in one unforgettable moment - barely more than a flash - the audience was left with no doubt about the evil that resided in Sweeney's soul. 

But it's the music that most will ultimately remember - and hum for days after. So final kudos go to returning music director Tyler Driskill, who skillfully drove the production forward with a band that flawlessly executed Sondheim's brilliant score.

Is it a perfect show? No - but few are. Most of my quibbles with the opening night performance reflect minor irritants that were likely one-time problems, such as a few chorus members whose voices could be barely heard out in the audience during their solos; the twice-promised fog that didn't appear; a few instances of "pitchiness" that started out ensemble numbers; and what I figured were slow light cues that found characters walking into dark spots on stage.

I also had a few issues with a couple of directorial choices. Where was the "build" - the increasing intensity - as the murder count increased?  (They almost seemed to become routine, expected and humdrum.) Plus, there didn't seem to be a cohesive approach to how to "show" the bloody murders. (Sometimes the lights blazed red accompanied by an obnoxiously evil sound, while sometimes it was a bit different; a white light with one murder made no sense to me. Was this a design choice or a technical execution error, I wondered.)  And once again, how the bodies were disposed of didn't work for me.

All in all, though, The Encore's second go-round at staging the Sondheim classic is a slick and memorable one, quite possibly it's best show yet - and one that everyone involved with should be proud to add to their resume.

The Bottom Line: How The Encore will top this I don't know, but it'll be fun to watch! Happy 10th anniversary - and I wish you several decades more!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through Oct. 22 at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter. For complete schedule information, CLICK HERE.

To read my recent interview with Matthew Brennan and David Moan in Between The LinesCLICK HERE.

David Moan and Sarah Briggs

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