Review: In Selma, this ‘Sweeney Todd’ causes some unintended heartburn
The Selma Arts Center production of “Sweeney Todd” didn’t settle well with me. It’s much the same reaction I’d imagine if I ate one of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Though I tried, I couldn’t make much of a emotional connection to this well-meaning effort. Somehow, in the midst of an outing that boasts several great singers, Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous score and a committed cast, the production overall seemed to me listless. Director Joseph Ham and his creative team obviously put a lot of effort into the details of this show, but some essential spark was missing.
Pictured at top: Chris Carsten plays the title character in ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Photo: Selma Arts Center
Pictured at top: Chris Carsten plays the title character in ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Photo: Selma Arts Center
Perhaps one factor in my sluggish response is the sluggish audience on the Friday night I attended. (And, granted, I was part of that group.) Or maybe this dark yet wickedly funny musical’s central conceit is so well known that any shock value has worn off at least three or four Johnny Depp Weird Movie Roles ago. Or it could be (spoiler alert, but does anyone really not know what happens to the victims of “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”?) that cannibalism has been so gleefully appropriated by popular culture that it’s become Netflix-normal these days.
Some thoughts on the show:
Chris Carsten is a top-notch Sweeney. From the moment his glaring visage is highlighted in the opening scene, I could sense the vengeance pumping through him. (Even his cheekbones seem menacing.) It’s the slightest details in his performance that are most distinctive: the way he applies shaving cream with a flick and a whistle; the nearly catatonic gaze he drops into for just a few seconds at a time, as if his brain has scooted off to a wonderful place where everyone who has ever hurt him can be tortured forever; the few moments of levity when Sweeney actually seems to relax. (I love the moment when he finally “gets” what Mrs. Lovett is suggesting in terms of an interesting new supply chain for her pies.)
The acting and singing are often strong. Ben Deghand is a sturdy Anthony (his “Johanna” is gorgeous). Michael Fidalgo is a lively Pirelli (he brings a smooth confidence and a witty crackle to the stage). Kai DiMino is endearing as Tobias (with his pigeon-toed feet and clunky movements, he nevertheless brings a certain graceful whimsy to the role). And I thought it was fun to see Chase Stubblefield, a 2nd Space Theatre veteran, in a musical; his singing voice as Judge Turpin isn’t a highlight (and, then again, neither was Alan Rickman’s), but Stubblefield offers one of the more leering, creepier takes on the role I’ve seen.
I couldn’t warm up to Emily Guyette’s Mrs. Lovett. I tried. Her singing is fine, but her laugh lines and comic moments mostly didn’t click for me. Part of this was Ham’s direction. I found some of Guyette’s physical choices distracting, almost nervous-tic-like, as she moved her hands and arms abruptly, it was too fussy and stylized. Kindle Lynn Cowger sings sweetly as Johanna, but the character seemed too detached and brittle.
The choreography tries too hard. Ham, along with Michael Christopher Flores and Deghand, as choreographers, throw a whole lot more movement into this “Sweeney” than you’d expect. The ensemble swirls, contorts, glowers and writhes on a regular basis, all with an air of gloomy psychological import. There are times when the choreography is chilling and effective, such as when the ensemble comes out in a line just before the big slaughter scene. But too often it feels obvious and forced. We get it: “Sweeney Todd” is dark. That point doesn’t need to be hammered home.
Sound and diction are issues. The recorded track often overwhelmed the singers at the performance I attended, and the mixing sounded odd, too; there were times when a single overpowering woodwind would overpower the entire string section. And some sections of dialogue were simply lost due to Cockney inarticulation and balance problems. (DiMino in particular has some issues here.)
Related story: 5 Things to Know about Selma Arts Center’s ‘Sweeney Todd’
The set is clunky. Erik Andersen and Nicolette C. Andersen’s three big set pieces — the pie shop with the barber’s quarters on top, the bake oven, and a platform suggesting a balcony — have a static feel. The stage feels cramped, and when actors make a “visit” to the bake oven, there’s little sense of a spatial relationship between the set pieces.
Two other annoyances. Johanna’s blond wig is a miss; it makes her look like a stunted Rapunzel. And what’s up with the “fancy” barber chair that Sweeney procures for his now thriving establishment? With its brass colored arms, orangeish tufted upholstery and sock-it-to-me 1960s vibe, it looks like something you’d find at Yoshi Now.
Ending on a positive note. There is some to admire in this production, from the eerie opening glow of the bake oven to the smear of dirt — or is it blood? — on the barber pole. Theo Hill’s period costumes offer a top-hat elegance mixed with street-grime rawness. In terms of the suspense, I still felt some sizzle, particularly in Sweeney and Judge Turpin’s final scene together. And, again, Carsten is just terrific.
Why, though, my overall lackluster response? I can think of another possibility: that “Sweeney” is just too bleak for the dark and pessimistic era we’re navigating through today. In more optimistic times, when humankind seems to have a brighter future, a bit of wicked-fun Sondheim bleakness can seem like a raucous, amusing distraction. When the world outside the theater doors feels more like “man devouring man,” perhaps an order of tonsorial takeaway hits a little too close to home.
We saw it the first weekend and was also very disappointed with the small audience. I agree that the music volume drowned out the vocals too often and there were some mic issues that I would have hoped they would have resolved. All in all, though, unless something seriously deteriorated between then and when you saw it, I thoroughly enjoyed Mrs. Lovett’s character and the songs told the story well. I am seeing it again Friday.
An Actual Unbiased Reviewer
So is this review on the performance or on the story of Sweeney Todd? Because the points made throughout the entirety of this review seem to point to the latter. Not only that but Emily’s portrayal as Mrs. Lovette left many around me, including myself, wanting more, she stole every scene she was in. I say a fair review of the show is in order, because this wasn’t it, period.
Oh, please. He starts off talking about Chris Carsten’s lovely performance (accurate AF), goes through specific points about various actors and design elements, and then ends discussing the sound issues (also accurate AF. It was so unbearably loud, I got a headache on opening night and couldn’t stick around to greet friends because I was in so much pain). Just because this wasn’t a rave review doesn’t mean it wasn’t fair. Just because it wasn’t the same reaction you had to the show doesn’t mean Donald’s opinions aren’t valid. I, for one, am thankful Donald is questioning local producing artists about their motivations for choosing the pieces they do. It’s something we should be able to defend as artists, and more importantly, something we should be getting across with the work itself. I watched Sweeney the night Kavanagh was confirmed and I found the story incredibly timely and relevant, though I’ve also seen it far too many times before to be truly excited about “attending the tale of Sweeney Todd” again. I was genuinely disturbed by how much I identified with Sweeney’s rage and vengeance and how little I cared for the ensemble calling him a “demon” throughout the show- a man who had his entire life ripped away at the whims of a sexually carnivorous rich dude with power. Do I think this particular production was aware of that relevancy? Not at all. Do I think it would have been better if they had been? Probably. Now, I both agree and disagree with Donald about other things in this review, as with many of his write-ups, but ultimately I understand this is his blog and his genuine, authentic opinion and whether I agree with him or not on any given review I’m just happy we have someone watching our work and caring about it enough to tell us what we can potentially improve on as we continue to work, and also sometimes give our ticket sales quite a boost. You wanna write a blog and gush about this particular production or any other production? Nobody is stopping you. Maybe you can even do it anonymously like this comment you were incensed enough to write but not passionate enough about to put your name behind. – Haley White (just writing out my full name in case my wordpress account isn’t obvious enough)
Agree with Haley’s comments. Was dismayed by portrayal of Mrs. Lovett but I thought Chris Carsten was brilliant. I, too, have seen Sweeney Todd MANY times (including seeing both Len Cariou and George Hearn, as well as Mark Norwood’s wonderful performances at GCP and Reedley.)
This is probably my favorite portrayal of Sweeney ever. Chris Carsten scared the shit out of me.
Sorry to disagree, Donald, but Act 1 of Sweeney Todd was magical and Emily Guyette was the best Mrs. Lovett I have ever seen. And I’ve seen quite a few over the years. Her mannerisms and facial expressions were spot on and her voice was more than up to the challenge. She has a real flair for comedy and will hopefully continue with this pursuit in the future. I also enjoyed the choreography and thought it added some depth as well as delight to what is usually a rather static production. Regarding music loudness, it did drown out the lyrics of at least one young fellow and provided my friend who wears a hearing aid with a less than enjoyable experience. So perhaps some fine tuning is needed here. Also, considering there was no advanced advertising in the Fresno Bee about this production, it really isn’t that surprising that the audiences have been so small.