Theatre Review: “Sweeney Todd” @ Cygnet Theatre Company – San Diego, 04/03/10

Guest Reviewer: Walter M. Mayes

Once in a very long time, the critical part of my brain just relaxes and I forget to nitpick. As I sat immersed in Sean Murray and James Vasquez’s masterly staging of Sweeney Todd, I found myself so absorbed that I just went along for the ride. And what a ride it is! Echoing the second act opener, “God, That’s Good!”

So ideally suited to the renovated Old Town Theatre space is this production of Sweeney that credit must go to the incredible team of designers who made this Victorian horror story palpably scary. Eric Lotze’s moody lighting seemed to come from everywhere and, along with Sean Fanning’s multi-level set that used every inch of the stage, managed to move the story from locale to locale and back again in a smoothly orchestrated fashion. As the story picked up momentum in the second act, I began to feel I was on a ride through a nightmarish fun house.

Sweeney Todd, regarded by many as Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, is also an acting and singing challenge for every member of the cast, and in this staging there are only eleven of them, requiring all but the two leads to double as the vocal ensemble throughout the play. Watching the cast move from their identifiable characters to blend back into the ensemble was absolute theatrical joy–once you knew who their character’s were, it became impossible to forget their identities as they sang “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” and this added depth and resonance to each performance. Tom Zohar found just the right amount of heartbreak in Tobias’ descent from abused orphan to madness; Steve Gunderson limned layers within layers in his portrayal of the heinous Judge Turpin; Jacob Caltrider was the very picture (and sound) of dreamy, wide-eyed youth; and Geno Carr was all officious smarm as The Beadle.

A production of this play requires strong singing actors for the leads, and Murray has wisely cast himself as Todd and the extraordinary Deborah Gilmour Smyth as Mrs. Lovett. Todd’s journey from sorrow to revenge to madness is achingly felt in every note and lost stare of Murray’s performance; and Smyth’s Mrs. Lovett is the epitome of the cunning survivor who believes that all morals are transitory and that there are very few things a tot of gin won’t help. As a team they are impossibly strong, finding the humor and nuance in every line and lyric and forging a powerful bond with each other and with the audience. They are simultaneously consummate actors and consummate performers, and the melding of those two identities is never more clear than in the first act’s finale, where Todd’s need for revenge against the entire world spawns Mrs. Lovett’s “bright idea” to make his killings into meat pies, and Stephen Sondheim delivers one of the wittiest numbers in all of musical theatre, “A Little Priest.” In the hands of Smyth and Murray, it is pure theatrical genius!

Sweeney Todd has been extended through May 9. Get yourself to San Diego and see this outstanding production.

For tickets call 619-337-1525 or go to www.cygnettheatre.com

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