April 18, 2007

Sweeney Todd at the Riz

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Meat pies, anyone? They’re hot out of the oven, and you’ll never guess the secret ingredient that makes them the best pies in London. To find out, go see the Melodramatics’ production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s a delicious treat for anyone with an appetite for the more macabre of musicals.
Josh Burlingham, director of last semester’s production of A New Brain, stars as Benjamin Barker (alias Sweeney Todd). After 15 years of exile, Sweeney returns to London with a new name and an axe to grind, hoping to re-establish himself as a barber and avenge the wrongdoings of his nemesis, Judge Turpin.
Director and producer Justin Leader, founder of the Melodramatics Theatre Company, draws his cast from both Ithaca College and Cornell talent to present this musically-demanding show. The instrumental ensemble and many of the voices meet the challenge posed by the haunting melodies and dissonant harmonies, in particular the five-member chorus who serves as both the townspeople and the narrator. Other notable performances include Nicole Intravia’s, who plays the Beggar Woman with remarkable vocal ability. She is scathing, imploring, or forlorn from one minute to the next, and while her dress may be drab, one can’t help but fall in love with her brief but beautiful solos.
Vanessa Sterling plays Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, the beautiful blonde ward and most recent romantic interest of Judge Turpin. The Judge (Matt Zeitler), in wonderfully lascivious displays of lust for the young woman, lightly strokes her cheek and hungrily compliments her thin muslin gown. Zeitler has perfected these lewd advances to make his character a truly loathsome one. However, during “Johanna,” the audience gets a glimpse into the tortured psyche of the Judge through his moving and raw displays of emotion (be forewarned, self-flagellation is included). Such are the darker undertones of this musical, eliciting both revulsion and curiosity as the characters cater to their more id-like impulses.
Although love and violence is the name of the game here, there are some lighter scenes to break up the more vile goings-on. “The Contest” draws many laughs, featuring Adolfo Pirelli (Devlin Shand, former star of A New Brain), the tonic-toting Italian charlatan who competes with Sweeney for the title of superior barber. In stark contrast to the reserve and cynicism that characterized his last role, Shand pulls a one-eighty as he dons an outrageous accent and stylized black eyebrows which immediately charm the audience. With potentially two more years of acting with the Melodramatics, we can look forward to watching Shand prove his talent on the stage as a truly versatile actor.
The famed plot of Sweeney Todd takes off as Sweeney and his landlord Mrs. Lovett (Corinne Procter) embark on a business venture that combines their talents. Mrs. Lovett boosts her meat pie sales using a newly-improved recipe whose main ingredient Sweeney provides, fresh from the barber’s chair.
In “A Little Priest,” one of the few scenes in which Sweeney departs from his tormented, maniacal, and at times distanced persona, the barber and baker joke over how to advertise the tastes of the pies based on their unique ingredients. They come up with such pithy advertisements as, “This might be a little bit stringy, but then of course it’s a fiddle player!”
Procter is both comical and endearing as Mrs. Lovett and displays some of the strongest acting in the show. Although her thick cockney accent is sometimes hard to understand and a few of her lines get lost in translation, Mrs. Lovett is a pleasure to laugh along with. Her rapport with Tobias (Jason Martinez), the newest but naive accomplice in the specialty meat pie industry, comes quite naturally and showcases Procter’s talent to display her character’s multi-faceted personality.
The body count by the end of the musical is worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy, though the actors provide enough successful comic relief throughout the show that the audience is left with a good taste in their mouths.
For those who have yet to “attend the tale,” or didn’t get their fill of pie jokes the first time around, see the final performances running April 19 through the 21. Visit www.melodramatics.com for performance information and ticket sales.