Pioneer Theatre serves up a dark and tasty Halloween treat with “Sweeney Todd”

Sat Oct 27, 2018 at 12:04 pm
By Edward Reichel

Kevin Earley and Anne Tolpegin star in Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Photo: BW Productions

Considering how often Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is performed these days, it’s somewhat of a shock knowing that it wasn’t well received at either its New York or London premieres.

But perhaps it’s not so much a surprise after all, since Sondheim isn’t the typical musical theatre composer. He has always brought an element of gritty realism to his creations that theatre aficionados of the 1970s and early ‘80s weren’t accustomed to. Nor do his shows always contain a memorable song that audiences leave the theatre humming. 

And in the case of Sweeney Todd the story is certainly macabre and filled with wicked humor. It’s no stretch to say that a show about a barber who cuts his customers’ throats isn’t for everybody.

But that didn’t keep the audience away at Friday’s opening performance of the Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Sondheim’s show. What the actors and director

Karen Azenberg created was pure magic. The show drew the audience compellingly into 19th century London’s seamier side—a sub-world inhabited mostly by undesirable yet fascinating characters.

Leading off the well-chosen cast are Kevin Earley as Sweeney and Anne Tolpegin as the pie maker Mrs. Lovett. These are demanding roles that require people with considerable acting chops and vocal talents to fill them, and the two artists delivered on both counts. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are strong characters whose presence is felt even when they’re not onstage. And Earley and Tolpegin certainly brought depth and dimension to their portrayals and gave their characters larger-than-life personalities.

The entire show is filled with black humor, and one of the wittiest numbers is “A Little Priest” sung by Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett that ends Act I. They sing a pun-filled duet as they explore the possibilities of the unconventional meat fillings for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. It’s grisly but hilarious.

Offering some much-needed lyrical relief to the story is the budding love between Johanna, the ward of Judge Turpin, and Sweeney’s daughter, and the young Anthony Hope. Utah native Delaney Westfall as Johanna and Jonathan Shew as Anthony bring tenderness and a sweet innocence to their relationship that is touching. Their Act I duet, “Kiss Me,” is filled with youthful desire and passion.

Judge Turpin isn’t quite as well defined in this production as he could be. But in his portrayal Joe Dellger nevertheless infuses his characterization with stern ruggedness — and also a false morality, as he warns Johanna about men while at the same time lusting after her.

One of the highlights of this production, and indeed of the entire show, is the Act I duet “Pretty Women” between him and Sweeney. Their sonorous voices blend well together as they extol the virtues of beautiful women.

Another highpoint of this production is Blake Stadnik’s comical turn as the assistant of the conman Adolfo Pirelli,  hawking a fake hair tonic in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” And his gradual transformation into madness after seeing the dead bodies piled up in Mrs. Lovett’s furnace room was chilling. Stadnik is a first-rate young actor.

As Pirelli, James Donnegan (who also plays Jonas Fogg) does a fine caricature of an Italian tenor, helped, of course, by Sondheim’s clever writing in Pirelli’s number, “The Contest.”

The show is aided immeasurably by the contributions of the costume, make up, scenic and lighting designers (Brenda van der Wiel, Amanda French, George Maxwell and Paul Miller, respectively).

Laura Hall as the Beggar Woman and Eric Santagata as The Beadle are also memorable in their well-defined portrayals.

And finally, kudos to the ensemble and the nine-member band, under the direction of Phil Reno. Both give solid performances that help this production be the success it is.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through November 10 at Pioneer Theatre. 801-581-6961.

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