“Sweeney Todd” at Carte Blanche

Carte Blanche Theatre's production of Sondheim's great on the dramatic, a penny short on the music.
April 14th, 2013 |
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Sweeney Todd, in an illustration from "The String of Pearls," the 1846 serial novel.

Sweeney Todd, in an illustration from “The String of Pearls,” the 1846 serial novel.

My favorite musical in my high school days was Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. (OK, I wasn’t a typical teenager.) The dark musical continues to place high in my list of favorites to this day. Just this month, I caught the George Hearn/Angela Lansbury production on Showtime. Friday night (April 12), I saw the version that opened at Carte Blanche Theatre.

Sweeney Todd can be many things. In its earliest incarnation, as an 1840s penny-dreadful serial, it was a grotesque melodrama about a serial killer. With the appearance of the Sondheim musical in 1979 (book by Hugh Wheeler, adapted from an earlier version by Christopher Bond), the range of readings widened. Sweeney could be a bloody good scare, a revenge-driven tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, a critique of corruption in the English class system — take your pick of any or all.

Sweeney, an extraordinarily flexible show, can move an audience from a massive stage with gargantuan sets or from one with no sets and minimal props (the San Francisco Symphony did it in concert) or within a tiny, intimate space. The Carte Blanche production, of course, takes place in the company’s modest storefront theater.

The casting of Sweeney is critical to any successful staging, and director James Dragolovich succeeded in that with Brian Miracle. He is a singular Sweeney, at times brooding, at others nervous, with frequent flashes of humor not seen in more typical one-note interpretations.

Liv Mueller’s take on Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime, was equally strong. Her slight changes in facial expression worked beautifully in the Carte Blanche space. We could see what was on her mind when she wasn’t speaking. Brittany Bonnell and Michael Paul Jeske did very well in the romantic supporting roles of Johanna and Anthony, the star-crossed lovers. I commend both for success in negotiating some of Sondheim’s more dastardly tongue-twisters. Tom Kamenick blended menace and class to the Beadle, assistant to the dastardly Judge Turpin.

The original production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was epic, with suspended walkways and even bits of a 19th-century factory. Bringing that down to a stage the size of a postage stamp is a tricky proposition. Dragolovich, in both design and staging, did an excellent job of condensing the physical production without losing the scope of the original. Letter-perfect costuming by Stephanie Tweedy and Emily Craig provided much information about the characters under the clothes.

Sondheim’s scores are thorny; I’ve played through many of them over the years. Sweeney Todd is not a collection of songs in support of a plot, but an extended musical composition with carefully constructed motives and musical underpinning. While it is not technically an opera, it is without doubt operatic. Sondheim’s music is a critical component, and here Carte Blanche and music director Leah Duckert come up short.

In general, the cast sang well, but the four-piece orchestra sometimes sounded badly under-rehearsed. Accompaniment patterns disappear and reappear oddly in the musical arrangement (which reduced the score from 20 pieces). They also made some strange cuts in the score; one song stopped abruptly and inexplicably several measures before the end. When the music worked it worked very well, but as often as not it was ragged.

If Carte Blanche can work out the musical kinks during the run (through April 28), it will have an excellent Sweeney Todd.

For tickets, $25 or $20 depending on performance day, and performance schedule, visit the Carte Blanche Studios website.

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