TheaterMark Rudio

Ray of Light's Sweeney Todd

TheaterMark Rudio
Adam Scott Campbell and Miss Sheldra in Ray of Light's Sweeney Todd. Photo by Claire Rice.

When I first read Ray of Light Theatre Company was going to produce Sweeney Todd this summer I thought it a perfect fit for the company that likes to push things toward the edge. I expected dark, Grand-Guignol, and filled with dark humor- and this would have pleased me immensely, mind you. However, the company surprised me by opting for a display of brains over blood and delivers an exceptionally understated, thoughtful version of Sondheim's masterpiece now open at the Eureka Theater. It's a brilliant take on this American classic which blurs the line between musical and opera.

There's an awful lot to like here, but let's start with what I think is the chief reason this Sweeney works so well: the actors are not miked for this production. Yes, that's correct- a work of unamplified musical theater. Just when you thought the thing had vanished from the earth forever Ray of Light has brought it back- and fucking Hallelujah for that! While at times this resulted in a few inaudible lines, overall it creates some tremendous advantages that are well exploited by this cast and crew.

It also requires some careful work by the musicians, and since Sondheim's music has been reduced from the original score's twenty-six instruments down to five, everyone needs to know what they're doing and this ensemble certainly does, essentially recasting the entire thing into a chamber opera. In charge of it all is Sean Forte conducting and playing piano. Seated with him on the right side of the stage is Robert Moreno on additional keyboards and percussion. On the left side of the stage are Bill Aron on reeds, Zach Taylor on bass and Lucas Gayda on violin. Robbie Cowan is credited as Music Director and "additional orchestration" and while I'm not sure what that means, the music is so well done I don't want to leave him out. Not to slight the others in any way, but it's really the work of Forte and Gayda, both of whom are exceptional, that makes this thing work. I found myself constantly drawn to what they were doing musically. Nice work, gentlemen.

The lack of amplification allows the singers to create portrayals that come across as disarmingly human, something rarely seen with this play- well, okay, I've never seen it done with this play, period. Adam Scott Campbell's Sweeney Todd isn't a monster, a bloodthirsty loon, or larger than life in any way. He's a broken man, hell-bent on revenge and driven by grief. If the audience can't quite approve of his methods, they are at least understandable. Campbell also has incredible range, and is most effective when he sings softly, allowing Todd's anger to become something palpable from the stage, and when he ratchets up his performance to full throttle the result is a Demon Barber of Fleet Street of incredible depth, nuance and determination.

In fact, that's one of the huge pluses in this show- by scaling it down and making it more intimate, everyone's motivation becomes identifiable- something hard to see in the usual bloodbath, and the music, reduced though it is, is given room to breathe. And breathe it does. "Johanna" never sounded so lovely and "Beggar Woman's Lullaby" comes off with alarming potency. If some of the lyrics of "Priest" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" are swallowed, well, that's unfortunate to be sure, but a trade-off I'd take every time.

Campbell's revelatory performance is nearly matched by Miss Sheldra's Mrs. Lovett, whose futile attempt to snare Todd as a partner in more than pie-making is also pushed illuminatingly into the fore. They don't have the same goals, but their goals make them expedient partners. The rest of the cast is solid with special kudos to Matthew Provencal's Anthony and J. Conrad Frank's hugely entertaining Beadle. The show is intelligently directed by Ben Randle, sharply costumed by Miriam Lewis and the appropriately gritty lighting is by Cathie Anderson. See it.

Next year Ray of Light will be doing one more Sondheim work to complete a three-season trilogy, and while I don't have this confirmed, I'm keeping my fingers crossed they'll also be presenting the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole.

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