Sunday, March 01, 2009

Broadway National Tour of 'Sweeney Todd' bloody good fun

Blood was running freely in Portland as a vengeful barber took his wrath out on his patrons, at least on stage that is. Merrill Auditorium presented the Broadway National Tour of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” Feb. 27 and 28.

“Just from an aesthetic stand point this is one of the better Broadway productions I’ve seen at Merrill,” said Tom Ayres of PCA Great Performances, the exclusive presenters of Broadway through Merrill.

“Sweeney Todd” is the third of a four-show Broadway series at Merrill and was preceded by “Stomp” and “Chicago” in the fall. The last show in the series, “Spelling Bee,” is coming to Merrill for three performance March 27 and 28 and will feature celebrity guest spellers including recent “Survivor” winner Bob Crowley.

“Sweeney Todd,” as with Sondheim’s other musicals, is astounding to just listen to. The complexity of the lyrics, music and overlapping harmonies make it one of the bigger challenges an actor will encounter. The songs are operatic in scale and seeing them performed live is quite literally spine-tingling and hair-raising.

The sheer talent on display in this staging of the show is extraordinary. In addition to acting and singing, all the performers also accompany themselves with instruments on stage in place of the traditional orchestral accompaniment. Actors step forward from out of the band to take their leads. It takes a moment to adjust to, but it is a daring and original staging.

The show’s two leads, Merritt David Janes as Sweeney Todd, who seeks vengeance on all of humanity for having his wife and child taken away from him, and Carrie Cimma as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s accomplice who bakes his victims into meat pies, are excellent.

This is tricky material that flips from dark satire to ironic tragedy and Janes and Cimma make it look easy. Janes is fabulous on songs such as “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest,” his cheeky duet with Cimma.

Saturday’s performance brought in a broad cross section of patrons from pre-teens to senior citizens something Ayres also noticed as he walked around Merrill’s lobby.

“It was a very diverse audience across the age spectrum,” said Ayres. “Part of my speculation about that, particularly with the younger audience that was there, is that I think it is some residual effect of the Johnny Depp movie, which really introduced ‘Sweeney Todd’ to a whole new audience and whole new generation.”

Those who were familiar with only the film didn’t simply get a retread as the film version removed several songs including “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which bookends the show and several love songs. Some of Sondheim’s satire on consumerism was removed for the film and the stage version has a few more twisted laughs than the film.
Ticket sales for “Sweeney Todd” were a couple hundred below expectations Ayres said, but overall he hasn’t seen a significant drop in ticket sales due to the economy.

“In tickets sales for other genres, we also present popular music, classically music, theater and dance, tickets sales have actually been holding fairly steady,” said Ayres. “Where I do know arts organizations, ours as well, are having some issues right now is in fund-raising and development.”

Even with this challenge Ayres is hopeful that there will be a place for the arts.

“I think in times like these the arts become a refuge or a haven,” said Ayres.

For more information about upcoming shows at Merrill Auditorium, including “Spelling Bee,” visit

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