The IU Theatre and Drama Department’s production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s dark melodrama “Sweeney Todd” drew gasps, laughs and a near standing ovation at Saturday afternoon’s performance in the experimental Wells-Metz Theatre.
Director and choreographer George Pinney’s work ranged, masterfully, from the tenderness of some of the more intimate moments to the wildly choreographed crowd scenes. There was liberal help from Robert Shakespeare’s lighting, working with the drama and the opportunities of the set by Keith Rose.
The story of “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is in the tradition of the “penny dreadfulls,” the nineteenth century’s version of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sondheim and Wheeler’s work focuses a bit more on love than some earlier versions, but there is still plenty of violence, blood and gore all firmly based on a foundation of crazed vengeance realized through cannibalism and capitalism.
The IU production features a nice mix of singer-actors from the Music School, the Theatre Department, and the Individualized Major in Musical Theatre program. Heath Calvert was a commanding figure as the saddened and then maddened barber. Coryell Barlow was both sympathetic and downright funny as Mrs. Lovett, the barber’s partner in pies. Neil Darling cut a fine figure as the barber’s bogus Italian competitor, Signor Pirelli. Zach Frank was effective first as Pirelli’s shill and then as Mrs. Lovett’s assistant. Colin Donnell as the fresh young sailor and Sheila Murphy as his beloved made a fetching pair. Todd Wieczorek was the picture of dignity as the evil Judge Turpin. Daniel Williams was an adept henchman as the Beadle.
Congratulations are in order for “Sweeney Todd’s”music directors Christine Howlett and James Kallembach for the preparation of the cast. Diction throughout, even in characters with heavy accents, was exemplary. The synchronization of the under stage orchestra was uncanny. During the whole show Sondheim’s orchestration meshed with the vocal lines and the balances were between stage and literal pit were remarkably good. Musically there were three or four numbers where cuts would have made more of less. There were also a few places in which actors were a bit stretched by tempos that might have profitably been accelerated a bit.
The costumes by Linda Pisano were visual keys to the drama, from the elegance of the Judge, the formality of the Beadle and the cheap flash of Signor Pirelli, the simplicity of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett on down through the rest of the cast to the filthy rags of the mad beggar woman.
The IU Theatre’s exciting and dramatically involving, production of Sondheim and Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd” in the Wells-Metz Theatre plays through Saturday. There are still tickets, but only a few, and only those with preferred seating tickets will be on the main floor.