UNIVERSITY PARK - There's grand and gruesome entertainment awaiting those who "attend the tale of 'Sweeney Todd.' "
Likely the most anticipated show of Penn State Centre Stage's 2012-13 season, Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" has 7:30 p.m. performances tonight and tomorrow and after taking an intermission for the PSU-Ohio State football weekend, resumes its run beginning Monday through Nov. 2 at the on-campus Pavilion Theatre.
One of the main reasons that this production is, pardon the expression, a cut above the rest, is traceable to its director Susan H. Schulman. Heading up Penn State School of Theatre's graduate directing program for the last five years, Schulman also directed the acclaimed revival of "Sweeney Todd" at New York's Circle In The Square, for which she received a Tony Award nomination.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has 7:30 p.m. performances tonight, Friday, and after taking an intermission for the PSU-Ohio State football weekend, will resume its run beginning Monday through Nov. 2 at the on-campus Pavilion Theatre.
Another of the show's strongest points is the finely detailed set design which effectively uses every nook and cranny of the Pavilion Theatre.
"This production has been designed by an undergraduate student," Schulman said. "It is very environmental and puts the audience in the middle of things."
So true. The ensemble, whether playing London's street vendors or asylum inmates, are often only a few feet away talking, berating or singing directly to the audience.
Upon entering the theater, the audience looks down upon the foggy brick-covered Fleet Street and Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop, where, admittedly, she bakes "The Worst Pies in London." Rising out of the haze is Benjamin Barker, returning to London as Sweeney Todd and seeking revenge against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravished his wife. The complex narrative is comprised of hidden pasts, mistaken identities and Sweeney's murderous plot which is aided and abetted by Mrs. Lovett, who rents him the shop above her bakery. Once Todd learns from Mrs. Lovett that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the judge, the barber's grief turns to wild fury.
Becoming his creative culinary accomplice, Mrs. Lovett starts baking the barber's customers who get their necks slashed when getting a much closer shave than they bargained for. Dropped down a chute to the bakery furnace, Todd's victims become tasty meat pies and "Sweeney Todd" turns even darker, funnier, and more chilling.
The Centre Stage stellar cast consists of four Equity actors and 14 bachelor of fine arts theater majors.
Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton is powerful as Sweeney, managing to elicit, at least early on, some sympathy despite his lust for blood.
Emma Stratton is fine as the brassy pie-maker. The audience is close enough to see Mrs. Lovett's big eyes and funny facial expressions and together vocally, they are a nigh perfect murderous match, ending Act I with the hilarious duet "A Little Priest" and the upbeat "By the Sea" near Act II's opening.
Carly Evan Hughes plays Todd's innocent daughter, with Patrick Gruver as her sailor suitor Anthony delivering a clear ardent ode to "Johanna."
Blake Stadnik is young Tobias, who befriends Mrs. Lovett, promising that no one will hurt her, "Not While I'm Around."
Operatic voiced Equity actor Ted Christopher excels as the insolent Judge Turpin, who teams up with Todd for "Pretty Women," with Jim Hogan playing the judge's henchman Beadle.
A minor character who gets major laughs is Brad Frenette as the pseudo--Italian snake oil salesman Pierelli.
Alex Grace Paul plays the pivotal role of the beggar woman, whom the director keeps on stage almost throughout the two acts, often huddled in a cubbyhole bedroom under one of the four raised platforms on each corner of the theatre.
The entire cast's solid acting is equally matched by their superb delivery of Sondheim's scathing score. Generally acknowledged as a musical masterpiece, "Sweeney Todd" has sophisticated and macabre music, ranging from haunting ballads and subdued chants to shrill outbursts. A pit of one to two dozen musicians is not uncommon, but the cozy confines of the Pavilion restrict the instrumentalists to music director Dan Riddle and three musicians playing synthesizers , with their sounds complimenting and enhancing the skilled singing.
Having the ensemble costumed with black robes and peak-masks dance around to cover the Judge's rape of Todd's wife is theatrical but, if not a misstep, distracted a bit from the otherwise gritty realism of the show overall.
Good looking costuming and effective lighting add to the production's technical values. Another of the melodrama's strengths is the director's fine balancing between love and innocence, which is twisted into hateful revenge , and the deliciously dark humor. The final irony comes from the characters who end up killing or getting killed by the one who loved them most of all.
Schulman notes that "Collaboration is a joy to me and musical theater is the most collaborative art. As Stephen Sondheim said to me, 'Reviews don't tell you how much fun you had,. "
The cast and crew must have had fun in bringing this "Sweeney Todd" to life on stage. But from the riotous applause and standing ovation, it is the Penn State Centre Stage audience who has the most fun by "attending the tale of Sweeney Todd." It's lurid but so exceptionally bloody good entertainment.
For tickets, call 814-863-0255; 800-ARTS-TIX or visit www.theatre.psu.edu.