'Sweeney' brings life to Camelot's new stage

Athunderous roar from the theater's sound system whisked Friday's opening night audience off to Dickensian London and heralded the birth of a sparkling new player to the region's theater community.

Camelot Theatre Company's new James Morrison Collier Building theater exudes professional elan, and anybody who came expecting opening-night wobbles would have been disappointed as it performed beautifully.

The 166-seat auditorium has eight raked rows in three sections with no bad sight lines. The large stage has a slight thrust, the lights and sound are up to snuff, and the overall effect is modern, accessible and intimate.

The feeling is a bit like that of South Coast Rep's Segerstrom Stage in Orange County, Calif., which is larger, but which also fans its audience out widely and has just a dozen or so rows so that everybody is close in.

Collier himself, dressed as a king, made an entrance to say, "Long live Camelot!" The opening-night crowd could have used some ushering help as patrons struggled with row and seat numbers as they sought sections and seats for the first time.

A play also broke out. Artistic Director Livia Genise chose to blood (sorry) the new space with Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." That is a statement, because the play is full of some of the best — and most difficult — music Sondheim has ever written.

That's evident from the first number, the laconic "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which cuts its lines abruptly as it instructs us in minor tones to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," a command we're unlikely to ignore. The tune is performed by the entire company of 18 actors as a collective narrator, and we're off and running.

Sweeney is a damaged man who seems to recall being happy once. He was sent to the penal colonies of Australia by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who seems to have destroyed Sweeney's family, and Sweeney has returned to take his revenge with the help of the innovative and energetic Mrs. Lovett, who enlists his help in creating the unique meat pies that become the toast of London.

The play's mise-en-scène begins far beyond anything seen or attempted on the limited stage of the old Camelot Theatre, a converted feed store next door. Don Zastoupil's London is set against a hellish glow that suggests the mills and blast furnaces of unfettered early capitalism. It's not a literal representation but an impressionistic one of cogs and wheels and smokestacks in the mode of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," perhaps as directed by a time-warped Tim Burton.

Now quit thinking of Burton, because the tone of this "Sweeney" is less like the dark, Burton-directed 2007 film with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter than the 1978 Broadway production. That is to say, as it walks the line of balancing humor and horror, it shades to the funny side.

This is clear by the third song, in which Genise as Mrs. Lovett sings balefully about making the worst pies in London while pounding pie dough with her fist and carrying on. Sondheim has filled this opera-esque musical with difficult lyrics set to rapid, herky-jerky patter and dissonant phrases. But when Mrs. Lovett has an idea, even as she sings, you see it click in Genise's eyes.

This seems a smart reading of the role, particularly later on when Mrs. Lovett sets her eyes on marriage, that traditional aim of comedy but a goal that's hard to square with Helena Bonham Carter's character.

Don Matthews' Sweeney Todd is darker and more austere than Mrs. Lovett, a strapping, imposing, revenge-seeker with red-rimmed eyes and a 1,000-yard stare. But when he realizes what Mrs. Lovett is proposing — she'll bake the pies if he'll supply the meat — we see recognition spread across his face, too.

"Good!" Mrs. Lovett cries. "You got it."

For a sprawling musical of more than three hours, "Sweeney Todd" is highly focused on the two main characters. But there are some smaller portraits that are sharply drawn. Bob Jackson Miner is chilling as the reptilian Judge Turpin, and Michael Wing exudes hulking menace as the judge's minion/enforcer, The Beadle.

It's hard to believe that Sondheim's extraordinary score is performed by an orchestra of just six musicians led by Musical Director Mark Reppert. Songs range from the ominous "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" to the rousing "God, That's Good!" to the lovely "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" sung by Johanna (Kendra Taylor), Todd's daughter.

In one very funny number, Mrs. Lovett expounds on the different flavors the flesh of men of different professions (priests, lawyers, etc.) impart to her pies. Sondheim's songs never stand alone. Rather, they add narrative momentum and lend impact to the work as a whole.

There is a social subtext, as there almost has to be in Dickensian tales, even penny dreadfuls. It's made spectacularly visual in "City on Fire" sung by Johanna, the ensemble and a mysterious Beggar Woman played by Presila Quinby.

Comedy and all, Matthews' Sweeney is a tragic hero, a flawed character who brings about his own downfall and turns much of what's around him to dust. Isn't there a bit of him, the company asks, in all of us? Whatever your answer, getting to the point where you ask the question is the point.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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