Clarence Brown Theatre and KSO Collaborate On a Brilliant Production of Sondheim’s 'Sweeney Todd'

FRESH MEAT: Veteran TV actress (and Knoxville native) Dale Dickey serves a bold performance as Mrs. Lovett in the KSO/CBT production of Sweeney Todd.

FRESH MEAT: Veteran TV actress (and Knoxville native) Dale Dickey serves a bold performance as Mrs. Lovett in the KSO/CBT production of Sweeney Todd.

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Perhaps like no other recent work for the musical stage, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is so eminently adaptable and bendable as theater that it practically cries out for fresh treatments. In the case of the Clarence Brown Theatre’s current staging of the musical, a collaboration with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the production practically bursts out of the available width of the Clarence Brown Theatre stage, with the onstage orchestra and the dramatic space being afforded equal theatrical footing. “Collaboration,” though, is probably too weak a description for what director Calvin MacLean’s and KSO music director Lucas Richman’s have managed to accomplish in creating this production; “brilliantly integrated” is better.

The 1979 Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical is drawn from a 1973 adaptation by Christopher Bond of some 1840s serialized London magazine stories and a simultaneously adapted melodrama by George Dibdin Pitt. MacLean and designer Kevin Depinet have retained subtle hints of Victorian flavor in their set, but have mixed in suggestions of Dickensian industrial heaviness and meat-market modernity using plastic slats as scrim/projection surfaces—all the while managing to fit in the 38 member orchestra in a cozy location upstage center.

Despite the intriguing visual impact of the production and MacLean’s inventive use of the space, it is the brilliance of the Sondheim score and the musical performances that shine through and drive this production. Richman certainly deserves kudos for keeping the musical timing tight. The juxtaposition of sweet and sour pushes and tugs on the audience; the old-time verse-driven structure of “A Little Priest” (with a modern melodic twist) serves as comedy relief following Todd’s dive into the depths of blackness with his “Epiphany.” From intricate and difficult meter-changing rhythm to dramatic dissonance to sophisticated lyricism, Sweeney Todd is probably as close to opera as one ever finds on the musical stage.

MacLean and Richman have also managed to cast the production with such a strong mixture of singing actors and acting singers that the differentiations became irrelevant. Dale Dickey was a masterful Mrs. Lovett, painting the character with bold strokes of voice acrobatics and delightfully shaded physical nuances tinged with loneliness and a bit of lust. She is a strong widow just holding on in a thankless situation, but all too willing to sacrifice personal ethics for survival.

Jeff Austin was a handsome (perhaps too handsome) Sweeney, with a lustrous voice to match the strength of resolve and the depth of his revenge, leaving no doubt that he could be the amorous target of Mrs. Lovett. However, try as I would, I failed to find the odd descriptions and mannerisms of Sweeney Todd (“His skin was pale and his eye was odd”) that Sondheim describes in the prologue in Austin’s character—and that one might have seen in other Sweeneys.

Alex Ward, as the love-bitten sailor Anthony Hope, and Natalee Louise McReynolds, as Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, were both vocally strong and dramatically appealing, not to mention completely attractive as the young lovers. Cody Boling sang an absolutely gorgeous Beadle Bamford, although dramatically I was never convinced he had a corrupt or evil bone in his body. On the other hand, David Kortemeier clearly knew the hypocritical subtleties of the evil of Judge Turpin’s perversity, and delivered them deliciously. I must admit that I found the character of Tobias (Micah-Shane Brewer) a bit ambiguous—was he merely youthful and naive, or was he mentally disabled? No one seemed to be sure.

A real standout was tenor Boris Van Druff, who brought a fabulous voice to the role of the charlatan barber, Pirelli—the first of many to be dispatched by Sweeney, stuffed into a trunk, only to be turned into a savory meat pie by Mrs. Lovett. Sacha Baron Cohen’s film version of Pirelli had been a comic favorite; now I’ll have to consider another.

Sound design has advanced so far in the theater that productions like Sweeney Todd, where diction is key, are virtually impossible without it. Joe Payne’s voice reinforcement and the subtle environmental effects, were clean, natural, and transparent.

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 3

steam9 writes:

Loved the show, however I found the placement of the orchestra centerstage very distracting. The ensemble kept running around the stage as if they were on a racetrack, so that you were always looking at the stage peripherally, instead of focusing on anything centerstage. That said though, the acting & singing were AWESOME!

TK32 writes:

I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was very pleased with the acting and singing. Dale Dickey's performance was fabulous. This interpretation brought forth more of the dark humor written into the musical which is often weak in the film version. ...speaking of which, the male vocals were strong and clear - something also missing from the film version. Sure there were a few very minor issues, but all in all this was a great show - well worth seeing... FWIW, I didn't mind the placement of the orchestra.

TK32 writes:

in response to TK32:

I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was very pleased with the acting and singing. Dale Dickey's performance was fabulous. This interpretation brought forth more of the dark humor written into the musical which is often weak in the film version. ...speaking of which, the male vocals were strong and clear - something also missing from the film version. Sure there were a few very minor issues, but all in all this was a great show - well worth seeing... FWIW, I didn't mind the placement of the orchestra.

I enjoied the show enough to attend again, for the Weds night show.  I was happy to discover that the four "minor issues" I'd referred to above had all been remedied.  However, the new issue was irritating.  Maestro Richmann opted to push the Tempo for Ms. Dickey's songs (or he allowed the orchestra to rush). Either way, there were points where it was clear that she needed to get a breath during song, but maestro didn't accommodate her. In one song, I had the feeling she was dragging to get his attention - but to no avail.  The result of having no breath - no support for some passages (although she still did an amazing job).  Having seen the show the week earlier,  I heard her not miss them - and it didn't seem that she struggled to get a breath in any of the songs then either.  I really wished maestro would have been accommodating to the performer, and not been in such a hurry to get home to see Wagnerian Operas on PBS.  Other than that, the show was still excellent - and you really should go - if you like dark comedies (stress dark).

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