The Lawrence KS. paper, "The Pitch", review from October 29, 2013                    NEWS


Sweeney Todd needs a little more sharpening in Lawrence 

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Photo by Angela C. Bond

There's no sugarcoating it: Stephen Sondheim is hard. And Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street might be the composer's most exacting show, requiring straight-razor musical precision. So kudos to the Lawrence Arts Center for taking on a serious dramatic challenge with its production of the bloodthirsty classic.

Director Ric Averill has gathered a capable cast to meet the capricious harmonies and punishing rhythms head-on. Mark Rector stars as the brooding barber, returning to London after 15 years' banishment to avenge himself against crooked Judge Turpin, who captured his wife and daughter. He's joined by optimistic young sailor Anthony and Mrs. Lovett, a struggling Fleet Street meat-pie proprietress ready to turn Todd's bloodlust into a business opportunity. He'll cut the throats of his choicest customers and send the corpses down to her shop to be used as pie filling.

Rector is a competent Todd, but the show unequivocally belongs to Jill Anderson, whose Mrs. Lovett is equal parts tender matriarch and deranged pragmatist. Anderson plays the backstabbing baker as a comic queen, riffing in a pinched Cockney air while she commands the stage with her commitment and precision. From her auspicious entrance in "The Worst Pies in London" to Act 2's "By the Sea," the actress infuses each song with the energy and specificity that Sondheim's masterwork demands.

The young lovers are similarly strong. As Johanna, Julia Geisler performs a wistful rendition of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" in her clear soprano. Joe Winans lends his rich, operatic voice to her paramour, Anthony, with a full vibrato that occasionally overwhelms his consonants. (That issue may have been compounded by a microphone problem during last Friday's performance.) Company players Joe Carr and Alex Goering are strong as well, attacking the prologue and expositional numbers with crisp, expressive singing.

Gender-blind casting is increasingly common, but talented soprano Amelia Rollings seems miscast as Todd's tenor adversary, Adolfo Pirelli. The directing choices in Pirelli's opening scene don't help the comic moments land in an attempt to suggest a London crowd, the small company clumps around her in the center of the stage, playing havoc with sight lines.

Pirelli's scene is symptomatic of a larger problem. The cast's prodigious vocal talents are undermined by blocking that frequently appears scattered and unfocused. With the notable exception of Anderson, the company mills lethargically around the stage.

Set designer Mary Nichols does an admirable job creating diverse staging opportunities, but they go largely unexploited. Scenes are frequently stretched across the wide apron in undefined playing areas. Late in Act 1, Todd jumps through the imaginary fourth wall of his barber shop into Mrs. Lovett's chophouse below. A power pose, to be sure, but one that leaves us pondering the logistics of this space a little too long. The production seems at times to have been designed with a much larger space in mind, from the overworked follow spots that dwarf Art Kent's evocative stage lights to the harsh contour lines of Tobias' and Todd's makeup. (Steffani Day's costumes work at this scale, though, infusing the production with Victorian gothic flair.)

The Free State Liberation Orchestra brings Sondheim's difficult music to life under Patricia Ahern's skillful conducting. "Not While I'm Around" is a notable highlight, and the orchestra beautifully underscores stunning work by Anderson and Jacob Leet (as Tobias).

The Lawrence Arts Center's production may not have hit its stride yet, but strong components suggest that subsequent performances, in the spirit of Mrs. Lovett's pies, could refine the recipe into a meal worth sampling.