What better place could there possibly be to mount Sweeney Todd than the magnificent late-Victorian St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill? And what more capable or inventive local company could we seek to undertake this extraordinary Sondheim musical than the venerable St. Mark’s Players! Bravo to all on such splendid results.
St. Mark’s Sweeney Todd is theater at its best, where smart production design, and superb lighting, costumes, music and players are woven into an immensely satisfying evening directed by Christine Callsen. Incorporating the sanctuary’s finely carved gothic features into the set design, the story moves convincingly, with a bare minimum of props, from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and the basement ovens upstairs to Sweeney’s tonsorial parlor.
Lighting design by Jerry Dale adds to the menacing flavor of this tale by concentrating the viewer’s eye on conniving characters, young lovers, and ensemble scenes with equal expertise. Costumes by Rose Lane, embellished by accessories drawn from a trunk onstage, emphasize the brutal class distinctions at play in 19th Century London. Lightning-fast entrances and exits are executed flawlessly around a marvelous orchestra assembled by Music Director Jay Frost..
Crowning the production is a superb performance by Kevin Diana as Sweeney Todd, whose strong, clear voice is equal to the challenge of Sondheim’s complex melodies and rapid-fire lyrics. A convincing on-stage presence, Diana mesmerizes with his combination of rip-roaring anger mixed with tender regret over the family he loved, and lost, 15 years earlier. Often, we catch him staring off into a place we can not see, where he seeks to plot and justify the murderous course he has set for himself. His rendition of “Epiphany” was earthshaking and his duet of “Pretty Women” with Josh Canary (Judge Turpin) delivered a nice balance of tongue-in-cheek humor, creepiness, and surprise.
Taunya Ferguson brings an essential earthiness to the role of the Mrs. Nellie Lovett, an enabling opportunist who seeks, after all, some semblance of middle class respectability, no matter how ill-gotten. Her performances of “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea” were humorous and the audience ate them up. But it was her Act One-ending “A Little Priest” sung with Diana brought the most laughs and some well-needed comic relief.
Jonathan Ohmart excels as the lovestruck sailor Anthony Hope, who pairs easily with Madeleine Adele Koon as the beautiful Johanna.Their duet “Kiss Me” is enchanting, as is Ohmart’s rendition of “Johanna.”
Josh Canary plays Judge Turpin with a deft mix of evil, vanity, and lust. Brevan Collins also shines as Tobias Ragg, who we meet as the plucky young assistant to the charlatan Adolfo Pirelli and then returns to wait on Mrs. Lovett’s ever-increasing clientele. Street wise and scrappy, Tobias nonetheless craves human connection. His affecting “Not While I’m Around” attests to his desire to protect, and be protected
Alexandra Linn as the tragic Beggar Woman, and Sam Stenecker as the sniveling, unctuous Beadle Bamford, sketch their characters adroitly and are well-supported by a spirited ensemble cast. And “God, That’s Good,” and the ominous “Pretty Women,” were especially well-done.
The setting, however grand and stylistically appropriate for this production, does have its challenges. While Kevin Diana’s singing easily soared above the orchestra, not all the players were as successful in making their songs fully intelligible to the audience once their voices had bounced off the high vaulted ceiling of the nave. The women’s lyrics, in particular, were sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. Some of this may be unavoidable given the venue, but my hunch is that the balance will likely be much improved in future performances.
Finally, of course, we have Stephen Sondheim to thank. His clever-dark music and lyrics are universal as they explore themes of love and loss, justice, revenge, and immorality, that are essential components of the human condition.
As Dramaturg Meghan Winch points out in her program notes, Sweeney Todd has been performed in a variety of settings ranging from full-scale Broadway productions with lavish sets to an actual pie shop in London. The fact that it can be produced successfully with full or minimal trappings attests to Sweeney Todd’s enduring place in America’s musical canon.
Hats off to St. Mark’s Players for taking on this treasure, and doing it proud. Slice of pie or a close shave anyone?
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Sweeney Todd plays through January 30, 2016 at St. Mark’s Players performing at St. Marks Episcopal Church – 301 A Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 546-9670 and leave a message, or purchase them online.