Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Directed by: Josh Marx
Music direction by: Rick Reynolds
Featuring: Karen Althoff, Kyle Arrouzet, Ross Briscoe, Juan Castro, Jesse Cortez, Ryan Courtin, Juliet Green, Ron Houk, Jennifer Mitchell, Samuel Nachison, Daniel Navarrete-Estassi, Heather Orth, Keith Pinto, Elana Ron, James Schott, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, Jaron Vesely, Chris Vettel, Rachel Witte
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: January 24 - February 10, 2019; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City
Tickets: $35-$52; call 650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.
for a first-rate 'Sweeney Todd'
Hillbarn Theatre is staging a brilliant production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” that sends audiences out of the building thrilled to their socks and tingling to their fingertips.
It’s all there, in the amazing score by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, but not just any theater company can squeeze all the juice from it. Director Josh Marx amps up the exciting stuff in this show, filling it with thrills.
“Sweeney” requires amazing singers who can handle the ranges, the harmonies, the contrapuntal multipart melodies — and the acting to make us believe.
Hillbarn provides, thanks to a powerful, 20-person cast, an excellent, 14-person orchestra, a brooding, evocative set, and colorful period costumes. Marx milks the show for all its multifarious madness.
“Sweeney Todd” began as a “penny dreadful” kind of story, and is full of murder, lust, injustice and frustrated desire. The barber of the title escapes from wrongful imprisonment after 15 years, full-tilt crazy and wanting revenge. An evil judge had sent him away, and stolen his wife and daughter.
He sings, in a sad, sweet ballad:
There was a barber and his wife,
And she was beautiful.
A foolish barber and his wife.
She was his reason and his life,
And she was beautiful
When he gets back to Fleet Street, Mrs. Lovett, who makes the worst pies in London, gives him a room, and returns his barber’s blades to him.
His friends, he calls them, singing that they soon shall “drip rubies … precious rubies.”
This production is blessed with Heather Orth as Mrs. Lovett. At 6 feet tall, in a bright red wig that towers over everybody, she commands the stage physically, but better than that, she sings Sondheim’s music with excellence, completely owns the London accent, and has a gift for comedy.
Orth makes real Mrs. Lovett’s desire for Sweeney Todd, and her willingness to not let decency or morality get in the way of making use of the fresh meat he begins to provide for her pies.
She has dreams, does this Mrs. Lovett, and Sweeney Todd, she believes, will make them come true.
Keith Pinto is the actor/singer/dancer who is called on when some kind of crazed intensity is needed, such as when he was the Emcee in “Cabaret” at Hillbarn, or Hedwig in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at San Jose Stage.
The thought of all that intense craziness holding barber’s straight razors in both hands is scary.
And Pinto delivers, in buckets.
Mrs. Lovett tells him that while he was in the penal colony in Australia, his daughter Johanna was taken in as a ward of Judge Turpin, and that his wife had taken arsenic.
So, Sweeney Todd doesn’t care about anything now, except revenge, and maybe saving his daughter.
Meanwhile, Todd’s friend from the ship, Anthony Hope, has met Johanna, fallen in love, and wants to save her. Much stands in the way.
Jennifer Mitchell has an excellent voice, and uses it extremely well to handle Sondheim’s demanding melodies. She is a beautiful Johanna. (She was also a beautiful Laurey in “Oklahoma!” directed by Josh Marx at Broadway by the Bay in 2016.)
Mitchell, Jason Vesely as Hope, Samuel Nachison as Beadle and Chris Vettel as Judge Turpin put on a stunning display of verbal acrobatics in “Quartet,” with its demanding harmonies and four different melody lines. For anyone who appreciates excellence in music, this show is candy.
Judge Turpin may be an evil old lech who deserves to have his throat cut, but Vettel sure gives him a good singing voice, and considerable stage charisma.
Ross Briscoe (formerly Ross Neuenfeldt) has a rich voice with lots of timbre as Toby, who is adopted by Mrs. Lovett, but is shocked when he finds a black hair and a bit of fingernail in a meat pie. Briscoe has become a welcome regular at Hillbarn.
Jesse Cortez is all kinds of over-the-top funny as Pirelli, a barber Todd must defeat in a shave-off.
Jazz singer Juliet Green is very good as the beggar woman, who is more than she appears.
The ensemble is filled with excellent singers.
There are loads of laughs in this bloody show, including in the first act closer, “A Little Priest,” in which Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney wonder about how various people might taste.
“Since marine doesn't appeal to you, 'ow about... rear admiral?”
“Too salty. I prefer general.”
“With, or without his privates? ‘With’ is extra.”
Lyrics by Sondheim, as well as the music.
Hope comes up with a plan to rescue Johanna from the asylum where Judge Turpin has hidden her. It’s Bedlam, and crawling with tragic crazies.
How Marx stages all that, in the small Hillbarn auditorium, is stunning and wonderful. All through the show, actors have strolled up and down the pitched aisles between seating sections, but for the final number — “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” — it all gets kicked up several notches, and the thrill meter is pegged.
Music director Rick Reynolds and his orchestra do an excellent job with the demanding music, and sound designer Brandie Larkin manages to keep the mix good almost all the time, so the instruments don’t step too heavily on the singers.
Ting Na Wang’s set is highlighted by dark, blotched colors on the wall that give a well-deserved sense of dread. It includes Sweeney’s barber chair with its slide to oblivion. Next!
Yichuan Sharon Peng did a great job with the costumes. The show is set in 1785, not modernized like some productions of this show, and the full skirts and cleavage of the women, and the brocaded jackets of the men are fun to see.
Kudos also to lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray.
“God, That’s Good!” the company sings to open Act Two, while munching on Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, and so is this show.