An eclectic mix of disparate stylistic elements that conspire to surprise us at every turn and akin to an all-out jam session of improvisation, nothing in the immediacy of the Landless Theatre Company’s production of Sweeney Todd Prog Metal Version feels forced or pre-conceived for the standard response. For a long time now, the Washington Metro Theatre Community has been excited about the utilization of “Prog-Metal” music (A genre of Heavy Metal music that is incredibly experimental in its composition —according to Director Melissa Baughman) for this production, and the challenge has paid off with a production that has a raw, original immediacy and ambience. Director Melissa Baughman has guided this effort with control and originality.
Composer Stephen Sondheim, who gave his blessing to this challenging effort, would be appreciative of the results of his benediction.
Individual corruption, societal corruption, and collective greed are all themes explored in this mountain of a musical thriller. One cannot help but see the underlying critique of unbridled free market capitalism that underscores this musical thriller. I have often thought of Sweeney Todd as similar to Follies in the sheer magnitude (akin to climbing a mountain) of what is being attempted; both musicals have always seemed a little on the daunting side in that there are so many levels and so much to absorb. (Company and Sunday in The Park with George —though as complex as any Sondheim show —-are so much tidier in their linear almost-compact structure while Sweeney Todd and Follies always seem like mountains to climb). There is such a wealth of context and meaning and such a multitude of ways to approach Sweeney that it is a marvel that the Landless Theatre Company has found the right approach, namely –just to perform the piece with a direct and raw immediacy.
A splendid group of six progressive musicians called “The Fleet Street Collective” has produced stunning Prog-Metal orchestrations and arrangements that enhance every scene under the stunning supervision and arrangements of Music Director Charles W. Johnson; these marvelous co-arrangers are Andrew Lloyd Baughman (who also serves as the lead character and as Choreographer), Spencer Belvins, Lance LaRue, Ray Shaw, and Andrew Siddle. From the grimy, industrial, and appropriately dour-looking set (Scenic Design and Painting by Jared Davis) to the unforced, sauntering choreography (by Mr. Baughman) to the markedly differing styles of acting (subtle, “over-the top,” campy, etc.) —this Sweeney Todd is unlike any other production I have seen.
Content dictates Form —(as Sondheim firmly believes for all his shows) —in this production. Every element of the production has a raw and run-down yet, concurrently, icy and metallic feel to it– and this quality meshes nicely with the ice-cold, callous demeanor of many of the characters.
Who has never felt the urge for revenge (whether acted on or not)? This is, of course, the hook that makes the character of Sweeney Todd so fascinating. Andrew Baughman is at his acting peak in his scenes of unabashed revenge and obsession but he is just as effective in his quieter, more pensive scenes. As Mr. Baughman ruefully reflects with a glowering gloom, he holds our attention with his melancholy rendition of “The Barber and his Wife.”As Mr. Baughman prowls around the stage with his increasing desire for revenge, I could almost feel his soul rotting away to the core. Baughman plays the role with an animal-like physicality coupled with a sneering sarcasm at the futility of life. Baughman possesses a beautiful, deep and resonant singing voice that shines most effectively in the rousing and lengthy “Epiphany,” as he forms his bloody plans for revenge.
As the amoral and practical “partner in crime,” Mrs. Lovett, Nina Osegueda, has a highly theatrical presence and a statuesque physical authority that often reminded me of a flamenco dancer or a Spanish Senorita. Osegueda plays the role with an air of a seemingly detached practicality combined with shades of sheer amorality. (Her expressions when listening intently or while in transition often reminded me of a young Shelley Duvall in her prime).
Ms. Osegueda’s voice soars to such far-reaching heights, that I often wondered if she could sustain the vocal demands; she more than sustained the demands —Osegueda shattered the fourth wall several times with the richness of her voice. She was especially effective when singing the amusing “Worst Pies in London”, the anxiety-producing ‘Wait” and the narrative-song “Poor Thing.” (Her voice often reminded me of Linda Ronstadt’s during her rock phase–).
The duets between Mr. Baughman and Ms. Osegueda entitled “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea” were sung with aplomb and consummate skill. In “By the Sea,” they playfully bounced lines off each other with amorous abandon. In the chilling yet witty finale to Act One, the comic list song- “A Little Priest,” Baughman and Osegueda delivered each line with just the right satiric tone.
If I was forced at gunpoint to pick the standout in a fine supporting cast, I would have to cite Shaina Virginia Kuhn as the Beggar Woman. As played by Ms. Kuhn —every interaction showed a complete understanding of character and nuance. Kuhn’s portrayal was finely shaded and not just the screaming madwoman who I have often witnessed in the past. Kuhn’s final scenes in Act Two as she tries to warn the populace of Todd’s menace and her limp body hanging in the arms of a forlorn Sweeney Todd show a sublime presence and a level of unparalleled stagecraft and professionalism.
Director Melissa Baughman and Choreographer Andrew Baughman keep the ensemble moving in a very natural manner that enhances the production and advances the successive songs in a vigorous yet stylistic manner that captivates the eye. The ensemble feels more like an integrated part of the production rather than a mere Greek Chorus. The Book by Hugh Wheeler actually seems more forceful and integrated here than I have seen in previous productions.
The character of Tobias, the young protégé of the competing barber (Pirelli) is played with charm by Dylan Ngo (Alexis Turbat alternates on other performance dates). Ngo artfully manages the transition from the earnest protector (as he sings “Not While I’m Around” to Mrs. Lovett) to the traumatized realist in the searing (pun intended!) “Final Scene.”
Camp elements are intertwined in the performances of Rob Bradley as Pirelli and, to a lesser degree, by Patrick M. Doneghy as Judge Turpin. These more outrageously artificial performances work here because the whole conception of this production appears to honor eclecticism in acting styles as well as music. Bradley’s prolonged death scene in the aptly titled “Pirelli’s Death” is a decidedly heightened moment of amusement.
Doneghy’s scene of self-flagellation (omitted in some previous versions) is presented here in its entirety and plays quasi-effectively in these proceedings. Doneghy does possess a pleasant, distinctive singing voice.
As Beadle Bamford, Joe York is appropriately bullying and officious.
As the romantic ingénue, Johanna, Angeleaza Anderson moves well and looks every inch the part but it is occasionally hard to understand some of her diction. She shines to best advantage in her duet with Anthony (Mikey Cafarelli) entitled “Kiss Me.” Cafarelli has a nice, unstudied air of earthy nonchalance that fits his role perfectly. His voice is beautifully shaded and his rendition of the gorgeous “Johanna” is a joy to hear.
I would be remiss if I did not stress once again the remarkable Set Design by Jared Davis. The metallic and dingy-looking buildings, stairs, house entrance and oven (replete with atmospheric fog) recreate the London of the past.
Lighting Design by Chris Holland is simply stunning in its intended effects.
Sound Design by Jim Wauters is surprising at every turn from the sound of bells, factory whistles and the slitting of throats.
Costume Design by Devin Gaither is astonishing and evocative in its versatility. Outfits had components of Goth, Victorian, Leather, Lace, and Campy sartorial splendors.
Landless Theatre Company has certainly produced a vision of Sweeney Todd that must be reckoned with. Relative to its aims and goals, this unique and groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd is an unqualified success.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Sweeney Todd (Prog-Metal Version) plays through August 2, 2015 at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lang Theatre-1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, which are a bloody cheap $29, purchase them online. For more information, visit Landless Theatre Company’s website.
An Interview with Andrew and Melissa Baughman on ‘Sweeney Todd-Prog Metal Version’ Playing Now at Atlas Through August 2nd.
“What, Mr. Todd, What is that Sound?” Arranging The Prog-Metal Version of Sweeney Todd, Part One: Andrew Siddle.
What, Mr. Todd, What is that Sound?” Arranging The Prog Metal Version of ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part Two: Andrew Lloyd Baughman.
Exclusive! Attend The Tale of Landless Theatre’s Sondheim Approved Prog-Metal Version of ‘Sweeney Todd’: Announcing The Arrangers-THE FLEET STREET COLLECTIVE.
Attend The Tale: Cast Announcement for Landless’ Summer of Rock productions of ‘Sweeney Todd – Prog-Metal Version’ and ‘Rock Bottom’ [A Rock Opus] by Landless Theatre Company.
Bloody Good News! Sondheim Grants Landless Theatre Company Permission to Develop Prog-Metal Version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ by Andrew L. Baughman.
Landless Theatre Company’s website.