Musical hits highs and lows

There is sometimes an elitist attitude that community theaters shouldn’t take on big musicals such as Chicago, Les Misérables and the bloody macabre masterpiece that is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street — or any Stephen Sondheim musical for that matter.

So it is commendable that director Valerie Rachelle and the Morgan-Wixson Theatre have taken on the tale of Sweeney Todd, played by the dashingly named John McCool Bowers; questionable direction and pacing issues, however, take away its ferocity and haunting power.

The plot should be familiar to those who have seen Tim Burton’s adaptation, the PBS recording of the musical production with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney respectively or heard the initial legend that the musical is based on.

Set in Victorian England, Benjamin Barker, a talented barber who had been falsely imprisoned by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Michael Heimos), returns to London after 15 years away, only to discover that his beloved wife Lucy poisoned herself and that his daughter Johanna (Natasha Harris) has been adopted by the same judge who put him in prison.

Taking on the name Sweeney Todd, Barker uses his barbering profession to take vengeance on the vermin of the earth, with those unsuspecting customers being used as the secret ingredient for the amoral Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies (AnnaLisa Erickson). As Sweeney pursues vengeance, the young sailor Anthony Hope (Vincent Perez) tries to save Johanna from Judge Turpin’s clutches.

Rather than using too many elements from Burton’s film, the Morgan-Wixson Theatre production adds its own unique touches to the musical. Sweeney is presented as a more boorish, powerful man of high stature rather than the tortured punk-rocker guise of Johnny Depp. Tobias, played by James Paul Xavier (who is also the set designer), is portrayed as a slow-witted childish man rather than an actual boy. Most scenes remain, although one or two are admittedly unnecessary, such as a set of parlor songs between Mrs. Lovett and Beadle Bamford (Tom McMahon).

Juggling themes of vengeance, madness, obsession and the wickedness of man, the musical is one of the pillars of the medium, bringing a harmonious complexity more akin to an opera than a regular Broadway musical. It’s a daunting play for any theater, but a production company — especially a community theater, — must be up to the task.  Anything less than perfection is going to stand out negatively.

The harmony between the ensemble and the lead roles captures the story’s intricacies, even in the particularly complex musical numbers “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and the maddening “City on Fire/Searching.” The unity of the ensemble weakens a bit near the end — the final ballad doesn’t have the punch that it should.

The lead actors deliver adequate performances; the standout is Vincent Perez’s rendition of Anthony, arguably the only sinless character in the play. He not only brings a majestic bravado with his singing, but he brings the right balance of innocence and valor to the noble sailor.

John McCool Bowers brings a statuesque power and gravitas to the bloodthirsty barber, capable of reaching some very deep notes. The darkness and angst of the character come through even if the audience never seems to get the chance to see his rage truly consume him, but that has more to do with the pacing of the direction than Bowers’ performance.

The biggest issue with the production is that the pacing of the play doesn’t give important moments enough time to truly come into their own. The most jarring example is when Sweeney kills his first victim, a paramount moment for the character and the play as a whole. Despite the moment’s significance, the actual throat slitting happens instantly and without a reaction from Sweeney.

In addition, the characters  do not feel as demented as they should. Turpin isn’t as vile and perverted. Beadle, though sung and acted well by McMahon, isn’t as slimy as he should be. The flashy Anthony Pirelli (Brandon Stanford) isn’t as abusive or scheming. They feel a bit toothless and lack the inherent bloodlust of the original material.

But none of this gets in the way of the music; Sondheim’s symphonic compositions are sung nicely enough. If you’ve never seen the movie or the stage production, it is still worth heading over to Santa Monica to see the play. Even an average adaptation of Sweeney Todd is worth the price of admission because of the brilliance of the music and the tragic melodrama of Sweeney’s pursuit of vengeance.