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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

MTS’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ deadly

by Graham Gentz
culture@dailylobo.com

Even if you’re not a screaming Goth girl or if you somehow missed the Tim Burton adaptation, you can still walk into “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and probably know what you’re in for.

The Musical Theater Southwest’s production is mercilessly long, totaling around three hours. Maybe it’s heresy, but can’t we cut some of these songs?

The “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is reprised seven bloody times, in case you are struck with memory loss or an existential crisis and you forgot what you were doing.

This particular production is not a spectacle by any stretch. There are minimalist choices made in staging and set, particularly in the noticeable lack of conspicuous gore.

The seating design is atrocious, with three or four rows completely blocked from the action. If you find yourself seated in the dead zone, you’ll also find yourself missing jokes and craning awkwardly up for sights of gore and special effects whenever some poor bugger gets his throat slit.

The singing is difficult to hear and much of the accents and acting is cringe-worthy.  The most confusing performance is that of Sweeney Todd himself, portrayed by TJ Bowlin.

Bowlin’s movements have an awkward stiffness, and he produces more bizarre, nonverbal noises and flat deliveries than an anime dub.

The wigs are amusingly bad and the personal microphones are huge, plastered oddly about the actor’s faces — the strangest of which is found on Lowell Burton, whose mic protrudes from the back of his shirt, snakes through his hair, and comes to rest daintily and conspicuously on his forehead.

The most complex character, as well as the star performance, is Mrs. Lovett, the meat pie lady, portrayed incredibly by Kari Reese. She is a fabulous performer, from her humor to her singing to her acting.

The second character to exhibit any depth is Tobias Ragg, played by Derrick Medrano, the orphan boy brought in by Lovett and Todd.
Medrano displays the ability to produce a solid performance, sing well, and top it off with a fine accent. His scene with Mrs. Lovett is twinged with a fascinating sexual tension.

Brian Clifton as Beadle Bamford and Esther Moses as the Beggar Woman do much with smaller roles, each standing out spectacularly.
The characters of “Sweeney Todd” are not an invention of now-ancient-yet-still-kicking musical composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, but rather a spoof of Victorian melodramas and penny dreadfuls.

The concept is largely the same: Sweeney Todd is a barber who slits people’s throats with straight razors and pops them down a hole to the ground level of the building where his female accomplice bakes the people into meat pies and serves them to the public.

Can’t be any worse than KFC

Sondheim’s Todd is a more sympathetic mass murderer. He returns to London after years of false imprisonment to seek revenge on the unambiguously evil Judge Turpin who locked Todd away so that he could rape Todd’s wife. Somehow in this rightfully righteous vengeance, the plot stops along the way to enter into a mass-murdering pie production scheme.

Why exactly? Cause he’s just all up and crazy.

Simply, the show drags. It is not without moments of brightening interest. It is largely, however, a lumbering beast croaking out the occasional semblances of musicality. But sometimes the little bird sitting in the creature’s mouth that cleans its teeth perks up from its duties and tweets along in delightful and refreshing harmony.

The comically verbose director’s note in the program reveals much love and passion for the work and that is largely what it feels like: a breathy, adolescent love letter.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Hal Simons

MTS Center for Theatre Black Box
6320B Domingo NE
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.,
Sundays at 4 p.m.
Runs through Nov. 10
$22 general
$20 students with ID.
Visit musicaltheatresw.com
or call (505) 265-9119 to make reservations.