by Andrew Juhl
Cedar Rapids – There’s an incredibly obvious way to endorse Theatre Cedar Rapids’ staging of Sweeny Todd. And I’ll get to it. Later. For right now, I’ll just say this: You had better not miss this production without a darn good reason.
First, the boilerplate description: Stephen Sondheim’s daring musical, Sweeney Todd, is the tale of a skillful barber, wrongfully imprisoned by the malicious Judge Turpin due to the judge’s envy of the barber’s beautiful wife. Escaped and looking to recapture his former love, Sweeney Todd returns to London after fifteen years, only to discover that his former life is all-but-gone, save for the sad remnants of a cloistered daughter, his old razors, and a failing pie shop, owned by indefatigable Mrs. Lovett, which still stands below the skeletal remains of his once great barbershop.
Simply put, I was amazed by TCR’s production at several points in the evening. This is not a show most community theatres could pull off, let alone pull off this well. I daresay few like-sized professional theatres in this country would have done this fine of a job. Every detail, from the costuming to the makeup to the stage to the dispensary of Todd’s victims was a cut above. (Rimshot.)
This is one of those reviews that could go on for a while, but I will do my best to be efficiently effusive.
My first praise goes to actors, and the first of that goes to the Ensemble, who was seemingly always everywhere, yet somehow never in the way. To be that supportive of the main cast while never upstaging them is a honorable accomplishment. Young Lincoln Ginsberg (‘Tobias’) performs amazingly for an actor of so few years, ringing a realistic depth and believability in a character that—in lesser productions—could have been an annoying thorn in the audience’s paw. Special notice goes to Michael Cervantes (‘Judge Turpin’), who does a purely wonderful rendition of “Johanna,” an extremely important (and difficult) exposition song. Daniel Kelchen, playing the titular Sweeney Todd, deftly maneuvers between scenes calling for booming rage, thoughtful consternation, and abject hopelessness. (Booming rage was my favorite; when Sweeney is angry about something, the audience damned-well knows it.)
As good as Kelchen is, however, TCR newcomer Piper Pack-Smith (Mrs. Lovett) steals the show with her remorseless buoyancy and pinpoint comic timing. There are precious few moments for levity in Sweeney Todd, and all of them are appreciated; thankfully, Pack-Smith and Kelchen make the most of these opportunities, helping turn what could have been a merely good night at the theatre into a great one.
Into the bargain of great acting and singing, shout-outs go to lighting designer Derek Easton, who nailed the mood of the every scene without fault, and also the multiple sound designers, whose additions to the night cannot be understated. (Sidenote: whoever decided to add an echo effect to the word ‘grave’ in ‘Epiphany,’ bravo.) There were some noticeable sound issues and drowned-out lyrics during the opening night’s performances, but I have faith that those balancing issues will be corrected by the second weekend’s shows. Additionally, TCR needs to be commended for their incredible set design (designer: Bret Gothe). Possessed as I am with the ability to describe it, I choose not to; do yourself the favor of seeing it in person. No, I don’t care if that’s a cop-out. Do it. Because I said so, that’s why. And finish your vegetables.
I would be remiss without also mentioning the wonderful musical accompaniment of music director Janelle Lauer’s small, curiously strong orchestra. Combined with Leslie Charipar’s skillful overall direction, the music of Sweeney Todd helps coalesce the many pieces of this complex and intricate showcase into a night of pure musical theatre that really comes alive.
Okay. I’ve now held it back as long as I could. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
(Photos by Alisabeth Photography.)