As I entered the Williams Theater of the Tulsa PAC for Light Opera Oklahoma's Sweeney Todd, I noticed the stage was stark and exposed, without all the frills and frivolity of other LOOK performances, and the music being played overhead by Tulsa Symphony Orchestra foreboding. And I was excited.
I've been looking forward to this show for months. And, according to Eric Gibson, LOOK's artistic director, so has the entire company. None of the cast members has ever performed in Sweeney before, and it's been a good number of years since the show has been produced in Tulsa. And it's a wonderful contrast to LOOK's traditionally "nice" repertoire.
What was most exciting about this production was seeing the same actors I saw the week before in The Music Man take on drastically different roles--and excel in both. Ron Loyd, for example, who played Harold Hill in The Music Man and Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd, was absolutely convincing in both roles, so much so that if one did not know, one might not believe the two were sung by the same man. And, I think, the nature of Stephen Sondheim's score for Sweeney showed off the range of Loyd's voice and demonstrated his talent as a singer and an actor.
James Wright, also, who played Mayor Shinn in Music Man and Judge Turpin in Sweeney, also presented two very different characters in each production (although the former was much more likeable).
Lindsey McKee's roles as Eulalie Shinn in Music Man and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney were both comedic parts, but the role of Mrs. Lovett gave the actress an opportunity to provide more depth to her character, to invite the audience to scratch through the surface and see what refuse lied beneath.
And overall, that's how Sweeney was. It was dark and sinister, but also riotously funny and, at its very core, remarkably tragic. There's more than meets the eye with this one, and that's the best part about it.
Sweeney opens with the chorus, all wearing ghastly make-up and rags for costumes, zombie-like in stature and gait, their shadows bouncing off the exposed walls like ghosts in the background, warning the audience to heed the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Todd (Loyd) has arrived in London on a sailor's ship after escaping exile, where he had been imprisoned (for a crime he did not commit) for 15 years. In an attempt to disguise himself, he has left his real name--Benjamin Barker--behind and adopted that of Sweeney Todd. He returns to his old home on Fleet Street and meets Mrs. Lovett (McKee), an excitable baker in clown-like makeup who makes, admittedly, the worst meat pies in London. She tells him his wife Lucy and their daughter Johanna (Mara Bonde) have met an ill fate at the hands of the cruel and sinister Judge Turpin (Wright), the man who, incidentally, imprisoned Todd to get to his wife.
Turpin, Lovett tells Todd, has driven Lucy to commit suicide and adopted Johanna as his own. Todd, whose trade before he was jailed was barbering, vows revenge. So, he reopens his barbershop under the guise of Sweeney Todd, hoping no one from his past will recognize him and reveal his true identity.
While he plans to lure Turpin to his shop and give him the "closest shave he's ever had," a few other fellows get in the way and have to be offed first. While trying to decide what to do with that first dead body, Lovett and Todd decide to incorporate it as an ingredient in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. Why let it go to waste, after all? Meat is expensive and times are tough.
The pies are a hit with the Londoners, and, all of a sudden, Mrs. Lovett finds her business very successful. In order to keep it going, Todd kills a few extra people here and there--out-of-towners nobody will miss. But, somehow, he keeps missing his chance to get revenge on Turpin.
It's sort of a lesson in the absurd. The idea of killing people to make meat pies is so disgustingly irrational, but, somehow, believably amusing. Loyd and McKee talk and sing us into thinking it's a good idea, and it's one of the funniest points in the show. As the closing song goes, Todd's clients "went to their maker impeccably shaved."
Meanwhile, though, the wicked Turpin has decided he will marry Johanna, and he keeps her locked away like Rapunzel so that no other man will ever lay eyes on her--or she on another man. She, though, has already fallen for Anthony Hope (Keith Harris), the sailor who helped Todd get back to London. He makes plans to save her from Turpin, and they will run away together and marry.
Things do and don't work out as they are planned, and there's a sinister twist in the plot at the end of the play. I won't give it away, though, because it's likely there are a lot of people out there who haven't seen the show or don't know much about it.
Sweeney Todd is visually delightful, with the actors slithering around the stage and climbing the set as though it were a jungle gym, which it sort of resembles. And it's wonderful.
Once again, LOOK has managed to pick an immensely talented gaggle of actors who blend into their roles, especially these more sophisticated and complicated ones. And, we are very happy to see LOOK outgrowing the lame, dated British patter/verbal slapstick of Gilbert and Sullivan, etc. for a more challenging repertoire.
Sweeney Todd continues July 7, 10 and 13 at 8pm in the Williams Theater of the Tulsa PAC, 2nd and Cincinnati. Tickets are $24 and $28.
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