“Attend the tale” – and make the drive: a review of SWEENEY TODD at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center

by Brian Edward, ‘Burgh Vivant.

When Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd debuted on Broadway in 1979, it was considered groundbreaking for its technical effects and dark themes, bordering the genre of horror; a far –  and perhaps blood-curdling – cry from the likes of Hello, Dolly!  On nearly all fronts, Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center admirably manages the massive undertaking.

And that’s exactly how director Justin Fortunato stages the opening moments: with an undertaking.  The corpse of the titular character is unceremoniously dumped into a grave by two undertakers, who, along with the ensemble, invite the observer to “attend the tale” of the deceased.  Rising from the earth to the tune of Sondheim, appears Sweeney Todd (Noah Pleunik), returned to London after a long incarceration, seeking vengeance on the diabolical Judge Turpin (Jeffrey Howell) and Beadle Bamford (Joe York).  After crossing paths with Anthony Hope (Matthew Fedorek), a young sailor enamored with the Judge’s ward Johanna (McKenna Howell), Todd sets up shop as a barber above the pie shop of the widowed Mrs. Lovett (Lucia Williams).  Throughout the two acts, Sweeney Todd plots and enacts his revenge, through missed connections, murder, and more than a few droplets of blood, all with the help of his enamored conspirator, Lovett.

Noah Pleunik’s Sweeney Todd is an enigma, portrayed with a sinister – and at times tender – stoicism.  His choices keep you on edge.  Even if you’ve seen the production before, you’re still not quite sure what this Sweeney’s going to do next.  Both he and Lucia Williams display their best onstage chemistry in the enjoyable Act I finale “A Little Priest.”

Williams’ cloyingly sweet Mrs. Lovett more closely resembles a Shirley Temple characterization than “the devil’s wife,” as she is later described, and although one may not entirely buy the concept that this woman is warped enough to carry out a plan to murder local citizens and bake them into pies, Williams provides us with more than enough evidence of her strength as a performer in the musical numbers.  Act II’s Mrs. Lovett solo “By the Sea” is often a forgettable bit of light, comedic fluff in a dark and cold second act.  However here, Ms. Williams sells it like a pro – entirely comfortable and delightfully in command, making it one of the more memorable numbers of the production.

Also notable are Joe York’s Beadle Bamford and Connor Bahr’s Signor Pirelli.  Both actors present strong vocals and a comedic mastery that elevate the production to a superior standard.  It’s not at all unthinkable that either would be completely capable delivering their roles to a Broadway audience.  York and Bahr are very well cast here, and leave you wishing that Sondheim had given them more to do.

In a show that can very easily devolve into “a play about blood spray,” the special effects by Tolin FX are entirely appropriate and thoroughly satisfying.  Also effective is Tony Ferrieri’s massive and flawlessly functioning set, showcasing the different locations of the Lovett home and pie shop, and tackling the difficult dynamics of disposing of corpses from a second-floor barber chair.

Though very impressive in its technical achievement and stand-out performances, the production overall lacks a bit of polish, primarily in the absence of the vocal dexterity necessary to conquer what is arguably one of Sondheim’s most complex orchestrations.  The swallowed notes and flubbed rhythms do stand out, perhaps because so many other elements of the piece are spot-on.  It’s for those elements that Lincoln Park’s Sweeney Todd is worth a look.  Theatre-goers that have never seen the show will enjoy the story – which does come across compellingly due to the talents of all involved, from designers, to crew, to ensemble.   Those that have enjoyed Sweeney previously will especially appreciate the handful of clever directorial choices by director Fortunato, and a different approach, devoid of imitation, to some of Sondheim’s most classic and complex characters.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, PA through October 21st, 2018.  For tickets and more information, visit www.lincolnparkarts.org.


– BE





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