No Dragons

Cygnet Theatre is fast becoming Sondheim Central. Their Little Night Music captivated audiences, they are stage reading/singing Passion on April 12 and 13, and their current Sweeney Todd threatens to blow out the doors at their Old Town space.

Sean Murray and James Vasquez’s costaging has many excellent qualities. Chief among them, the production gets the “Sondheim-ness” of the musical: wild flurries of 8th, 16th, and 32nd notes; antsy leaps from melodic warmth to frigid dissonance; and then, as if easy as pie, duets and quartets collide contrapuntally. More than any other Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd approaches sheer, swirling turbulence. But, as in Chaos Theory, there’s an underlying order beneath.

The score should have a “Here Be Dragons” warning stapled across the title: any weak vocal link and the swaths of staccatos turn to mud. In Cygnet’s cast, across the board, there are none. Better still, the individual and choral voices excel. Even better still (he said, reeking territorial chauvinism), a majority of the cast are San Diegans. Cygnet’s amazing production does us all proud.

Sweeney Todd, né Benjamin Barker, is the poor man’s Edmond Dantès. Like the Count of Monte Cristo, Sweeney’s exiled on trumped-up charges. He goes to Botany Bay, Australia’s penal colony. But unlike the Count, who finds a fortune beneath the Chateau d’if to fund his revenge, Sweeney returns to London with the clothes on his back, a matching set of razors, and vengeance in his heart. He sets up shop on Fleet Street — home of London’s newspapers (including tabloids and “gutter” journalists) — and becomes the template for Jack the Ripper.

But with a twist. The legend includes an early form of recycling: kindly nuts-horrific Mrs. Lovett makes the worst pies in London (“even that’s polite…/ If you doubt it, take a bite”). So why not, she rationalizes, spice them up with Sweeney’s victims? After all, the price of meat’s so exorbitant these days. So she turns customers into cannibals.

Sean Murray, Cygnet’s artistic director, rarely appears onstage, and it’s a shame: he’s such a talent. As Sweeney, ashen-faced Murray has the forlorn, tangled brow of mistreated Victorian melancholics: Silas Marner or Jude the Obscure but with a glimmer of Oscar Wilde about the eyes. Murray gives Hugh Wheeler’s occasionally blank verse lines a rough edge. When he sings he probes Sweeney’s pain and rage, both beyond redemption.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s Mrs. Lovett is a treasure. Boundary free, strawberry-blond hair running rampant, she is at once hilarious and freaky: a maternal recidivist eager to abet any scheme for profit or, maybe even more, just for the sheer wacko joy of it.

Sweeney and Lovett begin as distant relatives of the Macbeths. Then they sing “A Little Priest,” a ditty about how different people might taste — since they don’t commit sins of the flesh, for example, priests might be “pretty fresh” — and all comparisons vanish. Some liken the song to gallows humor. But it’s the opposite. In gallows humor, the hangman’s jokes would be funny if not so grim. In “Priest,” the subject would be ghoulish if Sweeney and Lovett weren’t so gleeful. Murray and Gilmour Smyth could be singing “My Favorite Things.”

Sondheim’s score loves to extinguish melodic lines, swallowing them in some instances, the way Sweeney does lives. But the musical also has gorgeous get-this-one-right-or-else songs, like “Johanna” (“I was half convinced I’d waken/ Satisfied enough to dream you”). Jacob Caltrider’s fresh young Anthony’s passionate version — and Steve Gunderson’s iceberg, evil Judge Turpin’s twisted rendition — give audiences a tune to hum for weeks to come.

Everyone contributes, but especially Ashley Fox Linton’s Johanna, Kürt Norby’s rightfully outsized Pirelli the barber, and Tom Zohar’s superb Tobias Ragg, the simpleminded orphan drawn like a moth to Sweeney’s dark flame.

A ton of credit to musical director Charlie Reuter, for the sharpness of the voices and for making his versatile five-piece backup group — brass, cello, woodwinds, keyboards, and percussion — sound like many more instruments.

Sean Fanning turns the Old Town space into England’s soot-choked Industrial Age: brick walls the color of black lungs. Shirley Pierson’s costumes range from pinpoint accurate to — for Mrs. Lovett’s layered looks — gloriously screwball. And amid all the expert work, Eric Lotze’s lighting is special. Shafts and pools, like clouds moving across the sun, dissect the stage. They shroud or halo performers. Roaring reds heighten the horror. Throughout, and without ever calling attention to his efforts, Lotze does with light what Sondheim does with music.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray and James Vasquez; cast: Sean Murray, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Tom Zohar, Ashley Fox Linton, Steve Gunderson, Jacob Caltrider, Geno Carr, Sarah Michelle Cuc, Trevor Hollingsworth, Kürt Norby, Cynthia Marty; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood; music director, Charlie Reuter
Playing through May 9; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.

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This is, hands down, the best production ever staged at our little Cygnet Theatre, proving that it can not only hold its own against, but thoroughly outdo anything at the Old Globe. I am always impressed with the plays chosen by the Cygnet each season, but they have really outdone themselves here. With absolutely no reservation, I can compare Sweeney Todd most favorably with the best of London's West End...all of the actors create thoroughly memorable characters, the songs are magnificent, the staging is vibrant (especially the blood-red brickwork)...DO NOT MISS THIS ONE!!!

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