Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Bitter and Exquisite Revenge

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Sweeney Todd (Keith Pinto) 

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler

Hillbarn Theatre

Foster City, CA
Until Feb 10

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Hillbarn Theatre, that little gem of Broadway on the Peninsula, has mounted a winning, razor-sharp production of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Grand Guignol musical about a spiritually lacerated man obsessed with serving  revenge upon his tormentors. (The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in the Victorian penny dreadful “A String of Pearls”.)

Directed by Joshua Marx, this  production brings us to Fleet Street in 18th century London where survival from poverty and injustice is the name of the game.

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Sweeney Todd (Keith Pinto)

As Sweeney Todd, Keith Pinto compresses the anger, obsession, and hatred that simmered when he was falsely sentenced to 15 years of prison, torn from his wife and baby daughter by the lascivious “pious vulture of the law” Judge Turpin. With his gaunt frame, sunken eyes, and poignant voice, Pinto creates a very scary Sweeney indeed, and we are afraid of him and for him. When later he caresses and dances with his razor, the effect is chilling yet exuberant.

Sweeney meets the gleefully opportunistic, larger-than-life Mrs. Lovett who becomes Sweeney’s partner in crime and, she hopes, love. Heather Orth captures the Cockney piemaker’s bustling resourcefulness and sinister motives with both humor and fear. Their relationship is as toxic as the foul stench from the evil deeds that lead to a “City on Fire,” powerfully sung by the ensemble members as they weave in and out of the audience. The scenes depicting ordinary London folk, soldiers, or asylum inmates are elevated by the sharp choreography and direction of the talented ensemble.

More pie! Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Ensemble

Sondheim’s songs deepen the motive of each character in Sweeney’s path, and the cast does not disappoint. Jaron Vesely as Sweeney’s only friend Anthony Hope fills the space beautifully with his love for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (a sweet Jennifer Mitchell) who is trapped like a bird in a cage by the lecherous and callous Judge Turpin (a frighteningly commanding Chris Vettel).  Turpin’s “bom-bom-bom” duet with Sweeney’s whistling about “Pretty Women” during the final “shave” is viscerally chilling. Ross Briscoe brings a touching vulnerability to the innocent Tobias who naively promises to protect Mrs. Lovett (“Not When I’m Around”) and later goes mad when he discovers how the meat pies are made.

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Tobias (Ross Briscoe)

The theater’s small size puts the audience close to the actors, intensifying the pressure cooker of emotions. Lighting (Pamila Z. Gray) and scenic  design (Ting-Na Wang) create an appropriately ominous mix of light and shadows. One thing did not really work, though. The animated sketch projected on the backdrop like a thought balloon while Sweeney sings the mournful “there was a barber and his wife..and she was beautiful” was distracting and unnecessary, competing with the mental image created by the lyrics.

Nevertheless, Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd will resonate long after you leave the building, and you may find yourself singing “attend the tale” as you lift your razor high.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
HIllbarn Theater
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404

Keith Pinto* - Sweeney Todd
Heather Orth - Mrs. Lovett
Chris Vettel* -  Judge Turpin
Ross Briscoe - Tobias
Jesse Cortez - Pirelli
Juliette Green - The Beggar Woman
Jennifer Mitchell - Johanna
Sam Nachison - The Beadle
Jaron Vesely - Anthony

ENSEMBLE (Alphabetical Order)
Kyle Arrouzet, Karen Atlhoff, Juan Castro, Ryan Courtin, Ronald Houk, Danny Navarrete-Estassi, Elana Ron, James Schott, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, Rachel Witte,

*Denotes Actors’ Equity Association

Director -  Josh Marx
Music Director & Vocals - Rick Reynolds
Costumes, Hair & Makeup - Y. Sharon Peng
Scenic Design - Ting-Na Wang
Lighting Designer - Pamila Z. Gray
Properties Designer - Phyllis Garland
Master Carpenter - Paulino DeLeal
Sound Designer - Brandie Larkin

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

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