In going to see Sweeney Todd at Renton Civic Theatre, I was already at a disadvantage because the only exposure I’d ever had to this show was the Johnny Depp movie that I neither enjoyed, nor finished. I knew the story well enough, had heard the hits from the show, but it is just not the type of musical I enjoy, and I think it’s because in order to really enjoy Sweeney, one must enjoy an operatic sound, and I do not. So, to review it is tough, because I now know it’s just not a show I enjoy, so I think I’ll focus on the elements of the show and look at it with a technical eye.
Let’s start with the successes first. There is some serious talent in this cast, primarily the three main adult characters in the show. Let’s start with the title character, shall we? Sweeney Todd, played by the fantastic Brian Lange was absolutely stellar. Mr. Lange’s voice is perfect for this role, and his physicality and ability to create dark and vengeful moments made him the perfect Sweeney. Costumed to look very much like the Johnny Depp movie version, Mr. Lange’s tall, slim frame really added to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’s edge. He was menacing and wounded at the same time, and was the absolute anchor of this show. His presence and ability to sink his teeth into this tortured soul made everyone in scenes with him better, and I was extremely impressed by his performance.
And the yin to Sweeney Todd’s yang, is of course Mrs. Lovett, played by Rachel Wilkie. Cunning, manipulative, and quirky, Ms. Wilkie brought to life a delightful Mrs. Lovett. She had wonderful chemistry with Mr. Lange, and gave a vibrant zest for life which beautifully juxtaposed Mr. Lange’s constant melancholy. A little sprite of a thing, Ms. Wilkie flitted and floated around the stage with a Puck-esque mischief state at all times, and I really enjoyed her. Spot on cockney accent, on-point comedic timing, and a wonderful energy on stage, she was definitely the life of the show.
Lastly, the third point to the main adult character triangle is Judge Turpin, played by the delicious Brian Pucheu. Judge Turpin is a despicable human being, one who made this reviewer’s face grimace with disgust on numerous occasions, because Mr. Pucheu pulls absolutely no punches. He doesn’t hold back, he commits fully to the many dimensions of this character, making every moment from fawning over Johanna to self deprecating flogging real and tactile, so much that you feel it all, even from the back row where I sat. (And honestly, even if you don’t like opera, you should check out this show just for the flogging scene because, good God is it breath taking!) Mr. Pucheu unapologetically travels through the Judge’s journey, and is so phenomenal at making him human, that I had moments of really liking the Judge and almost, not quite, but almost understanding and sympathizing with his side of things. Judge Turpin is the law in all the land, both inside and outside his home, so when that control starts to crumble around him, Mr. Pucheu’s ability to take us on that journey was sensational to watch. To constantly flirt with the line between judge and deviant so seamlessly, with so much humanity simply made my actor’s heart soar. This is one brave actor, and I am very much looking forward to seeing him on stage in the future. Bravo!
Mirroring the trio of adults is a trio of young adult characters, and sadly these three weren’t as strong. The best performance of the three, in my opinion, was Tobias Ragg, played by Nick Hyett-Schnell. Mr. Hyett-Schnell’s Toby was adorably sweet and naive, with strong physicality and a lovely voice. Mr. Hyett-Shnell’s ‘Not While I’m Around’ was so perfect, it brought tears to my eyes it was so honest and touching. Mr. Hyett-Schnell’s performance only fell short for me in two areas, the first of which is that his cockney accent went in and out, and was jarringly noticeable. Secondly, there are few panic moments for Toby, and only one of them felt honest and true and big enough for the circumstances of the scenes. You’ll remember that Mr. Hyett-Schnell is a former acting student of mine, as I reviewed his directorial debut of The Addams Family back in July. So, I have higher expectations of this kid than everyone else up on that stage, and not only did he not disappoint, he made me so very proud.
The other two children are the young lovers of Johanna and Anthony, played by Shelly Traverse and Matt Lang, and I didn’t care for the performances from either of these actors. While they were both vocally strong, and sang well, their acting was no where near the level of the rest of the cast around them. Ms. Traverse had a very strange smile on her face the entire first act that didn’t make any sense based on the lines she was delivering. The smile had no connection to the acting moments, as if her voice and her face were in two different moments, and it was really disappointing because it made it difficult to watch her. There’s a moment where the Judge tells her he’s going to marry her, and against Mr. Pucheu’s ridiculous ability to be authentic and terrifyingly creepy, Ms. Traverse’s Stepford wife smile as she realized what he was doing made no sense.
Additionally, Mr. Lang, while a lovely tenor, moves awkwardly on stage, creating a kind of characature rather than a real person making it almost impossible to connect with Anthony. There’s a tension, and uncertainty to his movement around the stage, and he appears to be trying so hard to ‘play’ Anthony, that I never believed anything Anthony had to say in this show. Like Mr. Hyett-Schnell, Mr. Lang’s British accent goes in and out and doesn’t sound natural. There’s a duet with Anthony and Johanna, where his accent was absolutely non-existent, and the lack of chemistry between these two actors made the scene simply painful to watch. The adult leads in this show effortlessly created very real multi-dimensional characters having real moments throughout the show, and sadly for these two young actors, that contrast really shined a light on how one-dimensional and weak their acting performances were, making it tough to care about their journey to each other.
The concept of the show by director, Vincent Orduña was a strong one. He definitely created a fun playground for his actors to run around on (and I do mean run around, these actors are up and down staircases constantly!). He had quite a challenging show to do in a small community theatre, as well as the challenge of how difficult this show is musically. There was a lot of just standing and singing, which I appreciate! Mr. Orduña understands the beauty of a still picture to just let actors be and sing, the most successful for of which was during Pretty Women, where Mr. Lange and Mr. Pucheu were in a tableau with Sweeney standing behind the Judge, who was seated in the Barber’s chair; a stunning moment, both visually and vocally. My only criticism was the varied use of British accents, cockney or otherwise, when they clearly weren’t working. Mr. Lange never used an accent as Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett’s accent was perfection, and so I wish all accents had been pulled from everyone except for those who could do it consistently and naturally.
And speaking of vocally, I was extremely impressed by the vocals on the entire cast. Music Director, Aimee Hong did a fantastic job of utilizing the voices in her ensemble to make the sound of this highly complicated score full and strong. I especially enjoyed the opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd, as it set the tone for the rest of the show. The pacing was quite good, especially given a show this long and complicated. As I said, that operatic sound doesn’t resonate with me as something I enjoy, but I can very much respect the caliber of the vocal performances of this show, led by Ms. Hong. Well done.
Design elements were also strong! While the set design was a bit clunky, it was built beautifully, the star of which was the barber’s chair! OH! This piece of brilliance was clearly constructed for this show and this set, and I give a huge congratulations to Scott Shaver for creating this masterpiece! Bravo! Loved it! Mr. Lange had to have just been thrilled to use it!
The costumes were fantastic as well. The show had the feel of Tim Burton’s film with both costumes and make-up, but I’m not mad about it, because it worked! My one confusion was at the end, the wig Toby suddenly has on didn’t make sense to me. I understood it in the beginning of the show, but it made no sense at the end.
My favorite costumes, however, were Mrs. Lovett’s, especially her opening number skirt that looked like a crocheted blanked my grandmother had when I was little. Bustled beautifully, full of rusty colors of oranges and golds, it just popped against the dreary grey of Mr. Todd. The entire cast was costumed and made up exactly as folks in 19th Century London would look. Some of the best costuming I’ve seen in a while, so I give congratulations to Courtney Kessler for her vision.
Overall, Sweeney Todd is a good show, and it’s heads and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen at Renton Civic Theatre, well, ever. They should be very grateful that Mr. Orduña upped the level of production for their space, because it truly was a 180 from The Boy Friend, and I chalk that up to a better vision and direction, as well as an understanding of utilizing performers strengths so that every actor up on that stage was set up for success. I was worried about coming back to RCT after the Boy Friend experience, but given how well this production was done, I will definitely be back, especially when Mr. Orduña is at the helm.
If you’re a fan of Sweeney Todd, like operatic-style musical theatre, or just appreciate strong vocals, you should definitely see this show. It’s very well done from start to finish. You know it has to be a quality of show for me to recommend seeing it even though I don’t like the style.
Sweeney Todd runs at Renton Civic Theatre through October 3rd, and ticket and show time information can be found on RCT’s website.
I give this an appreciative applause for a job well done.
Ciao for now