‘We are all guilty and we are all implicated’ seems to be the collective consensus of the superb chorus ensemble (akin to a very chilling Greek Chorus) as they reproach the audience in George Washington University’s excellent production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd. When the chorus sings “Perhaps today you gave a nod to Sweeney Todd,” and walks to the edge of the stage, you cannot help but feel confronted.
In this stellar production, directed by Muriel Von Villas, there is an almost uncanny transferring of the angst-laden lines of Hugh Wheeler’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s alternately ravishing and macabre score directly to the collective gut of the audience members.
This Sweeney Todd is one of the most disarmingly direct and audacious productions of this classic Sondheim musical that I have ever seen. Sweeney Todd has always been one of Sondheim’s most challenging musicals in that there are so many discordant themes and styles interspersed throughout – from the comic flourishes to the heightened histrionics to the Grand Guignol elements and back again to the almost breathtakingly beautiful moments of reverie and pathos, it is often difficult to blend these elements into one unified whole but, indeed, this is the rare Sweeney Todd that achieves a rewarding synthesis of the many myriad moods of this venture into the revenge – filled world of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Produced by the George Washington University’s Department of Theatre and Dance as well as the Department of Music it is continually apparent that this production does not favor one theatrical element over another – choreography by Karin Abromaitis, music direction by Patrick O’Donnell, and scenic design by Eva Gonzalez all blend together to achieve a tightly disciplined and professional style of presentation that is rare in a college production. The small instrumental music ensemble adds just the right note of intimacy and evocative moodiness to the sometimes gory proceedings. This obviously enthusiastic group of young actors, singers and musicians envelop the stage to provide a full panorama of how diverse and lively London must have looked in the 1800’s. Gigantic scaffolding and towering platforms rise to show the harshness of the Industrial Age set against the more modest accommodations of Sweeney Todd and his dubious partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. The alternately epic and intimate scale of this show co-exist nicely in this production.
As Sweeney, Michael Noel brings a fresh approach to the role – very slyly humorous and sarcastic the next moment. His singing voice is very expressive and full of irony. Noel never overplays his hand in his acting and, consequently, he is highly watchable. As Mrs. Lovett, Lizzy Marmon delivers a deadpan matter-of-factness to her amorality and augments her acting with a powerful and resonant singing style. Marmon eschews the coy histrionics of other Lovetts I have seen and often steals the show with an almost peerless sense of comic timing and delivery. Their two duets, “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea” are extremely well-done.
All the cast performs with zeal and fervor, with some particular standouts. Kevin Fry as (Judge Turpin) finely develops the repulsive oiliness of his character. Sean McKinley (Pirelli) manages to make what is often a caricature-laden character real, humorous and affecting. Sam Game (Tobias) gives us a fully-rounded characterization of a man-child who is slowly driven mad. Amanda Newman (the Beggar Woman) is wonderfully comic, mysterious and heartbreaking from one minute to the next.
When Noel as Sweeney cries out that “They all Deserve to Die” and brandishes his shaving utensils we are swept up into the feverish hell that this production successfully evokes. Director Von Villlas has delivered a totally organic and unique version of this Sondheim classic and one cannot help but get swept up in the maelstrom for she implicates us all in a frenzy of collective guilt.
Do not miss this Sweeney Todd!
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has two more performances left – Tonight 3rd at 7:30 PM and tomorrow – November 4th at 2 PM at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre – 800 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC , 20052. For tickets, purchase them online.
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