A diabolical, soaring ‘Sweeney’
|Paramount Theatre presents|
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Review by Catey Sullivan
The sheer size of Aurora’s Paramount Theatre is both a boon for directors and a potential show-killer. The house seats nearly 2,000. The distance from the stage to the back row of the top balcony is several city blocks. The ceilings above the audience soar a palatial 40 feet high. You could fit a full-sized house comfortably on the stage. The massive grandeur of the space is fabulous, but it could also easily overwhelm anything as small as, say, a human actor. It’s tough to deliver intimate moments and nuanced emotion when you’ve got to fill all that space, and play to a back row that’s essentially an El stop away.
All of which makes the Paramount’s production of “Sweeney Todd” all the more remarkable. Director Jim Corti hasn’t just conquered the outsized dimensions of the Paramount. He has filled every square inch of the place with a story that’s absolutely thrilling from the orchestra’s opening scream to the fiery, blood-drenched finale. There’s gargantuan spectacle abounding here, but none of it diminishes the very human plight of the demon barber of Fleet Street. This is Sweeney Todd writ large in flames and gore and passion. Yet for all its colossal breadth, the musical maintains a visceral emotional immediacy.
Everybody who has been paying attention knows that since the debut of the Broadway Series in 2010, the Paramount has gone from non-entity to powerhouse, producing shows worthy of the subscription series namesake. The curve has been steep, and with Sweeney, Corti demonstrates that it is still skyrocketing upward. There’s terror to make your heart race in Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler’s (book) penny-dreadful inspired gothic. There is also just enough hope to keep the tale from slipping into complete darkness.
Sweeney Todd is a revenge thriller that plays to our darkest natures. Anyone who has ever been bullied, unjustly fired, wrongfully accused or just plain ignored will empathize with Benjamin Barker, if not (entirely) with his means of exacting vengeance. Of course, most people this side of Titus Andronicus wouldn’t go so far as to bake their enemies into meat pies, but surely everyone can empathize with the burning desire to even scores. Barker embodies the basest impulses of human nature, aided and abetted by the ever-practical bakery proprietress, Mrs. Lovett.
Corti finds the pitch-perfect balance between humor and horror that Sweeney Todd requires, and his cast walks its tightrope with nary a misstep. There’s plenty of wickedly gruesome fun in Sweeney’s bloodthirsty shenanigans, but make no mistake: “Sweeney Todd” actually cuts far deeper than jugular-piercing razor. Sondheim and Wheeler lead the audience to a place of uneasy thoughtfulness. Just how much should a person be expected to forgive? Where’s the line between justifiable recompense and evil obsession?
Corti’s cast is every bit a magnificent as their setting and the story they’re entrusted with telling. Paul-Jordan Jansen’s Sweeney has a basso profondo with a swell and a reach you’d swear could resonate six feet under. Jansen brings an unsettling instability to Sweeney as well. The first act’s treacherous “Epiphany” is a clamorous, wild-eyed number that’s both a slide into the depths of throes of insanity and the most bitterly, bleakly cynical commentary on human nature you could possibly imagine. Jansen roars through it with a mix of anguish and rage and stone-cold calculation. One moment he’s positively feral in his unrestrained quest for blood. The next, he has the dead-eyed control of a sociopath.
Many an actor would be wholly overshadowed by such a towering performance, but Bri Sudia isn’t one of them. Her Mrs. Lovett is brilliant, a woman who knows precisely how to handle a man’s baggage, and a survivor who understands that all the passionate drive in the world will accomplish nothing if one lets one’s emotions run unchecked. Sure, Sweeney is motivated, but minus Mrs. Lovett’s reasoned execution, he’d soon be up to his neck in rotting bodies and on a fast-track to a date with the hangman.
Sudia’s Mrs. Lovett is the brains behind his bloodshed, the sense to his sensibility. The diabolical humor she brings to “A Little Priest” is utterly delightful. You can practically see the wheels turning as Mrs. Lovett throws in her lot with Mr. Todd. If she has to dispose of a few people in order to keep the dream of a cottage by the sea alive, well, so be it. Don’t we (per the lyrics) all deserve to die anyway? Sometimes dispatching the odd urchin a bit before his time is just the cost of doing business.
Corti’s 20+ ensemble has a playing field that’s stupendous. Scenic designer Jeff Kmiec’s three-story maze of scaffolding and stairways evokes the harsh steel angles of the industrial revolution as well as the grim workhouses and grimy factories that it brought to London. Sweeney’s chair is a thing of infernal beauty, a vehicle that plummets (literally) into the hellish fires below. Lighting designers Nick Belley and Jesse Klug create a vivid landscape dominated by the crimson of flames and the duns, grays and blacks of shadowy alleys and closed coffins. The stage pictures are completed by Theresa Ham’s elaborate Victorian costumes, garments that are funereal, richly detailed and elegant.
Tom Vendafreddo’s orchestra creates a soundscape as eerie and explosive as the story it tells. A blistering whistle blast (a nod to the shock-whistles that marked workdays at the factories) opens the show with stunning impact that the orchestra maintains through the entire production. Michael Keefe makes the crucial organ chords resound with ominousness, setting the tone for a score that is scary and sublime.
It’s clear from the opening number that Corti understands both the scope of Sweeney Todd and how to make it work within the soaring spaces of the Paramount. Several bars into the opening number, the stage seems to explode outward, morphing from casket-sized intimacy into a vast, multi-tiered kingdom of the damned. It’s explosive, eerie and a harbinger of what’s to follow.
In the end, you’ll be left wondering, as Sondheim intended, if perhaps today you gave a nod to Sweeney Todd. Or if perhaps you saw him looking at you from the mirror this morning. Either way, you definitely want to catch him while he’s in residence at the Paramount.
Sweeney Todd continues through March 19th at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena, Aurora (map). Tickets are $44-$59, and are available by phone (630-896-6666) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ParamountAurora.com. (Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Paul-Jordan Jansen (Sweeney Todd), Bri Sudia (Mrs. Lovett), Patrick Rooney (Anthony Hope), Cecilia Iole (Johanna), Anthony Norman (Tobias Ragg), Larry Adams (Judge Turpin), Craig W. Underwood (the Beadle), Emily Rohm (Beggar woman), Matt Deichtman (Adolpho Pirelli), Harter Clingman (Jonas Fogg, u/s Beadle, ensemble, fight captain), Will Skrip (u/s Anthony Hope and Jonas Fogg, ensemble, dance captain), Emily Goldberg (u/s Johanna, ensemble), Rob Riddle (u/s Sweeney Todd, ensemble), Teressa LaGamba (u/s Mrs. Lovett, ensemble), Nathan Maurice Cooper (u/s Tobias Ragg, ensemble), Thomas Ford (u/s Judge Turpin, ensemble), Emily Glick (u/s Beggar Woman, ensemble), Jason Slattery (u/s Pirelli, ensemble), Abbey Murray Vachon, Matthew Thomas Provencal (swings, ensemble), Evan C. Dolan, Julie Bayer, Alana Grossman, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, Matthew Thomas Provencal, Daniel Riley (ensemble).
Sean McNeely (orchestra conductor), Michele Lekas, Carmen Kassinger (violins), Loretta Gillespie (viola), Mark Lekas (cello), Jeremy Attanaseo (bass), Marcia Labella (harp), Dominic Trumfio (flute, piccolo, recorder), Ricardo Castaneda (oboe, English horn), Sean McNeely (clarinet, flite, piccolo), Steve Lenheiser (clarinet, bass clarinet), Jonathan Saylor (bassoon), Jeremiah Frederick (horn), Edgar Campos, Mark Olen (trumpets), Michael Joyce, Steven Duncan, Ryan Miller (trumpets), Michael Keefe (organ), Joe Sonnefeldt (percussion), Kory Danielson (associate conductor)
behind the scenes
Jim Corti (director, choreographer), Tom Vendafreddo (music director and conductor), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Theresa Ham (costume design), Nick Belley, Jesse Klug (lighting design), Adam Rosenthal (sound design), Katie Cordts (wig , hair and makeup design), Amanda Relaford (properties design), Ethan Deppe (electronic music supervisor), Susan Dosdick (dialect coach), Patrick Ham (special effects design), Ryan Bourque (fight director), Jinni Pike (stage manager), Kory Danielson (associate conductor), Sean McNeely (orchestra conductor), Liz Lauren (photography)
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