review by Janet I. Martineau
OK, first a word to the cast of “Sweeney Todd” at Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Community Theatre. This review is not about you. You all did the very best you could under the circumstances, and your singing voices were stellar.
But your director, Michael Walling...WHAT was he thinking that resulted in turning this musical about madness into a muddled mess.
We LOVED Walling’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” interpretation that was unique and different. It succeeded, in our mind. But with “Sweeney,” which he labeled in a newspaper story as a stylized version purists might not like, yikes.
In its frantic race to get to the end there was no time allowed for nuances and inflections from the cast and thus no emotion. The majority of songs were sung with such a vicious rapidity and over-the-top volume that the words were unintelligible. (I had to explain the story to the woman sitting next to me.) The sound system, at least on opening night Friday, sounded like an echo transmission from outer space.
Then there was the set. What the heck was it trying to say. Those HUGE gears at the back were distracting and tended to swallow up the people in front of them. The half dozen noisily moving towers...toward the end we thought we would scream if the cast moved them one more time in an attempt to create an imaginary scene. And we did scream (internally) when during Daniel Taylor’s singing of the lovely ballad “Johanna,” one of the few quiet numbers, those towers started moving to set up the next scene. NEVER upstage an actor with a set piece.
Red wooden chairs.....really, do people routinely stand on chairs to sing...made us giggle. The little fog machine that couldn’t....TURN IT OFF. When the barber killed his victims and then each of them proceeded to stand up, take his or her chair, and walk off the stage...talk about destroying a moment. If the orchestra nearly outnumbers the cast count....well, guess who will win.
And why was it some of the cast members had British accents (it is set in England) but others not a hint?
It was like Walling was saying “Sweeney Todd” is a dumb and horrible show and I am going to dis it; gonna turn it into a cartoon; gonna rob it of any humanity (and it DOES have humanity amid the carnage). If this is what stylized means, that a show is robbed of its humanity and any sense of detailing, then yuck.
But back to the cast.
Laura Peil somehow managed to triumph over most all of that in her lively performance as Mrs. Lovett, who turns the revengeful barber’s victims into best-selling meat pies. She speaks and sings with enough diction to save some of the play and displays at least some hint of being a human (albeit a sinister one).
Tony Serra in the lead role has a baritone voice to die for, and uses it well. But in the director’s apparent rush of this thing, his Sweeney Todd lacks any depth of character.
As for the rest of the cast, bravo for braving the super difficult Stephen Sondheim score. We can tell from the hints that are there, you did conquer its complexities, We also know most of you from other plays and what you are capable of as actors. You just got pushed under the speeding bus on this show.
And it could have been worse. We saw a “Sweeney Todd” in Detroit that had the cast members also the orchestra members -- each playing an instrument along with having to act and sing. What is it about this musical that makes directors want to mess with it?
We’ve also seen two more traditional productions...and to that we say, sometimes being a bit of a purist might be wiser.