Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd!

shane carty & shelley simester

If Neptune Theatre’s current production of Sweeney Todd is any indication of the rest of the 50th Anniversary Season to come or, indeed, the calibre that we can expect from future shows directed by George Pothitos I am very excited and thrilled for the future of our regional theatre.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a 1979 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim based on the British folklore tale of Benjamin Barker (alias: Sweeney Todd), a crazed serial killer and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who begin taking revenge on London by slitting the throats of unsuspecting barber patrons and baking them into meat pies. The musical was popularized in an inspired re-imagining by Tim Burton in the 2007 film of the same name starring Johnny Depp as Todd and Helena Bonham Carter as Lovett.

George Pothitos’ production is much more subdued. In fact the characters begin the play with much more subtlety than one often expects from this musical. None of the characters seem particularly bloodthirsty or villainous at the beginning of the play but they grow increasingly more so as the plot progresses and the world and their understanding of it warps and changes them.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of this show, and one that has been sorely missed in Neptune’s musicals in the last few years, is the staggering vocal power of the entire company when singing all together. Sondheim’s intricate harmonies and gorgeous sweeping score require a strong foundation in the ensemble, which this production certainly has in abundance, and the result is that the entire production reverberates with intensity and incredible depth. This, mixed with a gorgeous band of musicians and a striking use of the cellist makes this show a wonder for the ear.

This show also boasts of some beautiful performances by a nice mixture of Halifax-based actors and visiting artists from elsewhere in the country. Laura Caswell gives a stunning and haunting performance as the wild and desperate Beggar Woman, Mark Allan is perfect sweet naiveté with a gorgeous voice as young Tobias and Patrick Cook captures Anthony’s passionate ferver for Johanna like a singing Romeo. Kevin Dennis is hilarious as the Italian Adolpho Pirelli and gives the show a much needed comic laugh-fest in the First Act. Ellen Denny’s soaring and bright soprano voice is stunning but what is just as impressive is how interesting she makes Johanna, a character so often portrayed with less personality than a lark in a window. Denny’s Johanna is bright and strong, distinctive in her choices and one is given the strong sense that she and Anthony, although two people who barley know one another, have the potential not just for romance, but for a real friendship based on respect and understanding, which is rare, and so refreshing, for a story set in 1846. Cliff Le Jeune also manages to find the humanity in the slimy Judge Turpin, keeping his dark rage and lascivious thoughts tightly cloistered under the garb of propriety. Shelley Simester has fantastic comic timing as Mrs. Lovett and a beautiful chemistry with Shane Carty’s Todd. Her “A Little Priest” and “By The Sea” are standout numbers in the show. Carty’s dreamy baritone voice is so deep one has the feeling she could fall into it and with his distraught eyes and broody intensity the audience is with Carty for the full duration of the bloody adventure from the very first note he sings.

Geoffrey Dinwiddie’s mammoth stone set with intricate moveable pieces and traps and other mad contraptions all over the place is a revelation and coupled with Kevin Fraser’s brilliantly ghostly lighting design, the scene upon which the actors tell their tale could not be more perfectly and adeptly set.

There were a few moments where I thought the stakes could be raised a bit, a little more intensity when Pirelli blackmails Todd, for example, and a frantic acceleration during the first “Pretty Women” and there were a very few moments where the emotions in Sondheim’s sweeping ballads seemed to grow more in volume than in grounded intensity, but these things may come naturally with more performances and additional audiences.

In all, Sweeney Todd is exactly the kind of musical that our audiences and our community deserves from the Regional Theatre and if this is the standard for the future of Neptune, Halifax is very fortunate indeed.

Sweeney Todd plays at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall until October 7th 2012. Shows run Tuesday-Friday at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 4:00pm and 8:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. For more information or to book your tickets please visit www.neptunetheatre.com or call 902.429.7070.  

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