Robust 'Sweeney' wins audience to dark side
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
"Sweeney Todd" is a big, dark, lumbering musical filled with discordant Stephen Sondheim music, little spoken dialogue, and only a couple of melodic songs. Its dark side comes from the story line of a revengeful barber who slits his customers' throats and his baker accomplice who serves them up as meat pies.
Essentially an opera, the show opened on Broadway in 1979, starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou.
The Army Community Theatre production, now playing at Fort Shafter, is not the first Hawai'i production, but easily one of the best. Filled with excellent voices, singers who can also act, and presented on a primitively gothic and brooding set, the show definitely casts a mood.
Set in Victorian London and looking like a Dickens novel brought to life in shades of brown and black, this is not a toe-tapping musical — although some hummable lyrics may leave the theater with the audience. Mostly it draws us into a darkly sinister and pathological existence, spiked with shocks of grotesque humor.
It's a place to visit briefly and then step outside for a breath of clean air. But Laurence Paxton and Stefanie Smart make the visit worthwhile.
Paxton is right on target in the title role — vocally powerful and dramatically consistent. From the opening scene, he draws a clear picture of a man driven to revenge his lost family and keeping only a slippery toe hold on the edge of sanity.
Remarkably, he's also likeable. While we grimace at the sight of bodies slipping through a trap door from barber chair to kitchen, something in us roots for him to get away with the murders. Or, at least, to get away with the one big murder and then quietly retire to a small cottage by the sea.
Similarly, Smart shows us a Mrs. Lovett who knows how to turn lemons into lemonade — figuratively speaking. Sure, she lacks morals and ethics, but you can't fault a widow lady for trying to make ends meet.
Smart's best character moment comes during her duet with Justin Hashimoto on the show's best known song, "Not While I'm Around." Befriended by a crippled boy who wants to protect her, Mrs. Lovett gently soothes the lad, knowing that she must eliminate him.
The show's other melodic number is "Pretty Women," strongly sung by Paxton and John Mount as the sinister bass-baritone Judge Turpin. Terry Howell Jr. and Megan Mount add their quality voices to the ensemble as the young love interest and Lorna Mount etches a strong character role as the old Beggar Woman. And if you haven't guessed who her character really is by intermission, you have sadly not paid attention.
Stephanie Conching's staging is crisp and unobtrusive and Lina Doo's musical direction is muscular and solid. Dennis Hassan's set centers on a vast, two-story rolling island of brick and wood, set against an backdrop of radiating raw lumber. When backlit by lighting designer Derron Peterson and peopled on many levels, the result is a picture of nightmarish accusation.
"Sweeney Todd" carries a powerful punch.