Review by Tony Annicone
Rhode Island Stage Ensemble’s fall musical is Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” which opened on Broadway on March 1, 1979 and won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical. This musical is a macabre tragicomedy based on the legend of a half mad 19th Century English barber who is driven to crime when his wife and his daughter are taken from him by an evil judge.
Unjustly imprisoned, Todd eventually escapes 15 years later and vows to bring justice not only to the judge who destroyed his life but, to all the people of London. He forms a partnership with Mrs. Lovett, an enterprising barmistress whose previously worst meat pies in London soon become the tastiest with Todd’s victims as the secret ingredient in them. With a production design aesthetic based in German Expressionistic film but a keen eye to keeping all of the three dimensional reality of the psychology of these deeply flawed characters firmly grounded, this is a production of this show unlike any you ever seen. Director Gordon Dell infuses his cast with the energy and insight to pull of these multidimensional characters while music director Scott Morency taught the 27 talented cast members the intricate and precise Sondheim music and lyrics in this over three hundred page score. Their combined efforts produce a sensational musical that must not be missed. It is rewarded with a resounding standing ovation at the close of the night.
Gordon’s keen insight into these characters pours out to the audience. Scott conducts a nine piece orchestra. This talented cast is lead by Robert Grady as Sweeney Todd. He plays the mad barber splendidly and possesses a terrific baritone voice which fills the theatre. From his “No Place Like London” to “Pretty Women” to the “Letter”, he captivates you with his strong stage presence. He makes the transition from Benjamin Barker into Sweeney Todd during the incredible “Epiphany” song which stops the show with his powerful rendition. Todd’s counterpart is played by Mahria Trepes. She is a hoot in this role and shows off her voice in “Worst Pies in London”, “Poor Thing” and “By the Sea” which all win many laughs. Mahria brings a lot of humor to lighten up the show. Her duets with Robert, “Epiphany” and “Little Priest” leave the audience in stitches as they figure out to do with the dead bodies.
The wonderful sounding chorus is a highlight of this show. They handle several demanding numbers including the continuous “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, which is based on the Dies Irae, the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead, the frightening, “City on Fire” and “God, That’s Good” which sounds like “Oom Pah Pah” from “Oliver.” David Reed and Rachel Hanauer play the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna who is Todd’s kidnapped daughter. David is fantastic as the heroic young sailor who saves the damsel in distress from the clutches of the evil judge by saving her from the insane asylum. He has a strong voice in the rousing ballad “Johanna” and the pretty duet “Kiss Me” with Rachel. Rachel possesses a strong soprano voice which is heard in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and the duet with David. Her voice soars in all her numbers.
The mysterious Beggar woman who has a secret past is wonderfully played by Leslie Nevola. She displays her comic timing as this insane creature. One of her funniest moments occurs when she tries to grab Anthony’s crotch. Leslie displays her lovely voice in “Alms” and “City on Fire.” Another comic performer is Iain Yarbrough as Toby. He first appears as Pirelli, the barber’s assistant but soon becomes Mrs. Lovett’s employee. Iain displays his strong voice in “Pirelli’s Magic Elixir”, “God, That’s Good” and in the poignant “Not While I’m Around” which is my favorite song in the show. It is sung when he wants to protect her from the dangers in her shop. Iain shines in this role. I first reviewed Iain as Gavroche in “Les Miserables” back in 2013.
The horrible evil judge is excellently played by Preston Arnold. He oozes venom as this insidious character who lusts after the much younger ward of his, Johanna. Preston displays his voice in “Johanna” where he self flagellate’s himself and “Pretty Women” duet with Robert. The judge’s sidekick is Beadle Bamford. Kevin Hernandez shows this man’s reprehensible nature when he kills Johanna’s bird. His voice is heard in “”Ladies in their Sensitivities” and he plays this role splendidly. The third suspicious character is the Italian barber, Pirelli who is played for laughs. Pirelli is excellently played by Scott Berozi who wears a handlebar moustache and has a topnotch Italian accent. He displays his high tenor voice in the contest song when he shaves a contestant slower than Todd. Later on when he tries to blackmail Sweeney, he becomes his first murder victim of the show. Scott is a laugh riot in this foppish role. So for a fantastic version of “Sweeney Todd”, be sure to get your tickets at RISE before the show is completely sold out.
Sweeney Todd (13 to 22 October)
The RISE Playhouse, 142 Clinton St, Woonsocket, RI
1(800)838-3006 or www.ristage.org