Friday, August 12, 2011

Attend the ballad of 'Sweeney Todd'

 A murderer is on the loose, or so proclaimed ads in The Conway Daily Sun, but fear not: This madman resides only on the stage of the Eastern Slope Inn in North Conway, N.H. The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” opened Wednesday, Aug. 10, and is playing through Aug. 20.
Grant Golson plays Sweeney Todd, formerly Benjamin Barker, who returns to London after a 15-year banishment on false charges. He seeks vengeance against the crooked Judge Turpin (Kevin O'Neil) who destroyed Todd’s life so many years earlier. With Todd’s wife dead and his daughter, Johanna (Brittany Santos), the ward of the Turpin, he sets up shop as a barber waiting for the opportunity to give Turpin an extra close shave.
When Todd’s initial attempts at bloody retribution fail, he decides that all of humanity deserves to fall at the hand of his blade. His ally in this scheme is Mrs. Lovett (Victoria Bundonis), who bakes Todd’s victims into her meat pies. This adds an aspect of sharp social critique particularly on the wickedly funny “Little Priest.”
Director Andrew Glant-Linden and set designer Daniel Thobias open the production at an insane asylum with the inmates forming a chorus that sets up the show with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” As the show begins proper, the padded cell walls of the set are pushed and pulled to transform into 19th-century London and the inmates become the characters of the play.
This staging choice is a departure from the original, which first opened on Broadway in 1979, but as the show progresses it makes more and more sense as you realize all the primary characters are driven by obsession. For Todd that obsession is killing Turpin, for Turpin it is sheltering Johanna all for himself and for Mrs. Lovett it is her misguided love for Todd.
Even the seemingly normal characters like Todd's daughter and her suitor Anthony (Peter Carrier) are driven by a love that is more like a fixation. Upon further inspection the lyrics to “Johanna,” the sweet ballad Anthony sings to his new love, have a certain darkness to them. “I'll steal you, Johanna, I'll steal you/Do they think that walls could hide you?/Even now, I'm at your window/I am in the dark beside you/Buried sweetly in your yellow hair.”
Golson, who has appeared in a variety of productions for the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company including “Annie” this summer and “Music Man” and “Singin' in the Rain” last summer, makes a terrific Todd.
This is something different for Golson. He broods fantastically and has a powerful voice. On “Epiphany” he revels in Todd's madness. What makes the performance work so well are the smaller details, the barely noticeable facial expressions and gestures.
Bundonis is Golson's equal and helps provide the show with much needed moments of brevity. She has assured comic timing and just a touch of campiness that plays nicely off of Grant's more somber performance. This juxtaposition is most hilariously apparent on “By the Sea.”
O'Neil is appropriately unsettling as Turpin, as is Andrew Lipman as his right-hand man, The Beadle. Carrier and Santos have less colorful roles as Anthony and Johanna, but perform admirably.
This is large ensemble cast that is put to the test by perhaps Sondheim’s most challenging musical, which features dense, overlapping operatic lyrics. The cast is up to this difficult task, but in a few cases struggles to be heard as the live music drowns out the performers. This is a problem that continues to plague productions at the Eastern Slope Inn stage.
The worst example of this occurs during “Kiss Me” and “Ladies in Their Sensitivities.” These songs are sung simultaneously, one in the foreground and one in the background, and when you add the band it creates a wall of sound in which nothing can be made out.
Isolated moments like that aside, this is still a solid production. This is a show that requires a lot of singing of its cast and, under George Wiese's musical direction, there are moments that are genuinely spine-tingling and shouldn't be missed.
Tickets are $30. For tickets or call the box office at 356-5776.

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