Saturday, February 22, 2020

Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Actors Theatre of Indiana join forces in Sondheim's 'dark operetta'

If you have a good feeling about Valentine's Day, you might well think of it as having its own season — a small
Sweeney Todd (Don Farrell) sings in praise of his "friends," the razors of his trade.
one, of course, and not for the sake of florists, candy sellers, and greeting-card makers, but all for love.

So maybe Friday night, a week after February 14, I was still basking in its glow, oddly enough, to take in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" as a love story. Love thwarted and violated, love enduring in distorted form, love misapplied and criminally directed. Love, the companion of lies and madness. Love emerging somehow from dire threats, triumphing against all odds.

What Stephen Sondheim called his "dark operetta" enjoys a semi-staged production, whose second and final performance will be tonight at the Palladium, with Actors Theatre of Indiana in collaboration with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. Coincidentally, the performances come the weekend after the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's accompanied showings of "Casablanca," whose score by Max Steiner is one of the film classic's glories. "At the age of ten, I was more a fan of Korngold than of Kern, more of Steiner than of [Richard] Strauss," Sondheim writes in his enthralling volume of self-commentary and second thoughts, "Finishing the Hat."

In other words, as a child, the major creator of American musical theater in the late 20th century found neither stage musicals nor classical music as attractive as movies. And that interest had something to do with the pervasive underscoring in the classic film scores by Steiner, Erich Korngold, and Bernard Herrmann. It carried over into Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece (to Hugh Wheeler's book, derived from Christopher Bond's play, with Jonathan Turick's orchestrations), which is so magnificently represented in the Carmel production.

Thus it's a signal achievement that the splendid Carmel Symphony occupies most of the Palladium stage and that such care has been lavished upon the music under the dialogue as much as on the songs. Janna Hymes, the CSO's music director, conducted a fit and febrile rendering of the score, well-coordinated with the cast, supplemented in song, chiefly "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," by the black-robed Indianapolis Arts Chorale in the gallery.

The portrayal of the title character by Don Farrell had a dark charisma that never flagged. The hypnotic intensity of "My Friends," the barber's paean to the tools of his trade, united the character's weird obsession with razors to nostalgia for his old life in London and the bitter retribution he plans to exact for his forced exile years before. "He handles them as if they were sacred objects and sings softly," the stage direction reads. It was one of many moments when Farrell completely inhabited the demon persona essential to the role.

This is vital, because though the show has loads of humor (much of it gruesome) and barbed commentary on social injustice rivaling "The Threepenny Opera," it is fundamentally a serious examination of love gone haywire. The former Benjamin Barker was a family man, no doubt about it. London's upper crust, personified here by a lecherous judge, has decreed that the happiness of the lower orders may be obliterated with impunity, and the barber and his young family are this story's hapless victims. Now with a new identity as Sweeney Todd, the convict returned from Australian exile is ready to set matters right after his own fashion.

Mrs. Lovett envisions life by the sea, but Sweeney Todd's vistas are sepulchral.
Broadening his quest for vengeance after an accidental failure to slit the judge's throat, Todd resolves to subject any and all customers to the closest of shaves. In the equivalent of an operatic scena titled "Epiphany," Todd's demon takes charge, and Farrell's performance of this number was a highlight of Friday's performance. It properly cast a shadow over the mirthful duet that follows, "A Little Priest," in which Todd and the seedy pie baker Nelly Lovett celebrate with punning amusement the expansive business they intend to set up, rendering serial murder into a marketable viand.

Richard J Roberts' stage direction seethes with appropriate action in both numbers. Throughout, his skill and imagination certainly push the "semi-staged" description past the halfway point; a walkway around behind the orchestra gives the action breadth, but most of it takes place right before us on Paul Bernard Killian's appropriately sketchy set, in which the tonsorial parlor, the restaurant, and the basement kitchen are necessarily set side by side. We have to imagine the operation of gravity (the physical kind), though the gravity of the Todd/Lovett scheme is never in doubt, as dispatched customers are dumped down the chute past the dining room and into an ever-stoked baking oven.

Judy Fitzgerald embodies Mrs. Lovett in all her loquacious Cockney verve and resourcefulness. Love is the engine driving her involvement with the touchy Todd, and Fitzgerald caught both the sly temporizing and the shabby dreams that motivate the amoral baker. Every telltale facial expression and gesture was delightfully in place. The other ATI co-founder, Cynthia Collins, plays the Beggar Woman whose real identity hovers ghost-like over the plot. Her sporadic intrusions onto the scene, with her mental distraction hinting at the bad business afoot on Fleet Street, always brought goosebumps.

In other roles, Mathew Conwell and Elizabeth Hutson gave the right optimistic ardor and youthful energy to the nearly doomed couple displaying the hopeful side of love. Their singing was of a buoyant piece with their  ingenuous portrayals. Tim Fullerton presented a looming figure of menace as the corrupt, lascivious Judge Turpin, with Michael Elliott as the complaisant Beadle, a minor official in a position to create major trouble for the meat-pie business. Mario Almonte III rates a mention for the comic gusto he brought to the role of Adolfo Pirelli, a Todd rival and snake-oil charlatan who's made short work of. His murder spurs the new business and allows it to pick up the services of the simple-minded Tobias, played with nuanced pathos by David Cunningham ("Not While I'm Around" is perhaps the show's one breakout song, though it's much more affecting in context).

On a technical note, the face microphones are of course necessary to allow the cast to project above the orchestra. That's a given: The problem is that some of the patter-song lyrics get blurred, though Mrs. Lovett's mostly come through heroically. More crucially, Sondheim favors spotlighting individual contributions in choruses, and these almost never stand out: The street brouhaha around Pirelli and the later meat-pie raving of satisfied  diners ("God, That's Good!") are rather stewed together, and the audience can be only partly aware of this particular recipe in Sondheim's master cookbook.

For the most part, the seasoning is piquant and judiciously applied throughout.  The cinematic progression of scenes consistently catches one up in the music as well as the story. Sondheim's final word on the work, which this production honors expertly, runs like this: "What 'Sweeney Todd' really is is a movie for the stage." As such, it's every bit as much a love story — in its own weird way — as "Casablanca." Season's greetings!

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