Walter Mayes, as Sweeney Todd, takes comfort in the arms of Cami Thompson, playing Mrs. Lovett in Redwood Symphony’s production of ‘Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.’
Imagine a production of Stephen Sondheim’s comic-horror musical “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” starring John Goodman and Carol Burnett. And they could both sing, really well. That will give you a rough idea of what the Redwood Symphony put on last Saturday at Cañada College.
Walter Mayes played Sweeney. He’s a huge, tall man who towered over the rest of the cast. In costume and makeup, he looked grim.
But his Sweeney emphasized the good-natured side of his personality, even as he murdered. It lost some of the iron from his sulfurous curses, but it did several admirable things. It made him believable in cracking jokes and puns in “A Little Priest” and in affectionately enduring Mrs. Lovett’s prattle. It emphasized the slyness of his plans as he hid his motives. It rendered his sudden outbursts of anger terrifying. And the cool suavity he brought to the act of slitting a series of customers’ throats while singing lyrically was genuinely funny. His vocal smoothness — he didn’t talk or spit his way through his numbers — emphasized the John Goodman-like heartiness of his character.
Cami Thompson, under a shock of red hair, played Mrs. Lovett. She was, if anything, even finer than Mayes. She brought a bawdy fishwife goofiness to the role that fits the character better than the coquettishness of Angela Lansbury, the original actress. Her comedy, and her cockney accent, are what reminded me of Carol Burnett.
From Thompson’s first appearance, serving “The Worst Pies in London” as she kneaded a lump of dough to the irregular rhythm of the song’s accompaniment, she was splendidly funny, in fine voice, and on top of her lines. Her big character song, “By the Sea,” expressed herself and fit into the flow of the drama instead of standing as a digression.
As the wretched Johanna, Maya Kherani was the most operatic singer in the cast. She gave lyric grace to Sondheim’s angular melodies, and had finely intertwining duets with Justin Marsh as Johanna’s suitor, Anthony. The strong-voiced Marsh made an Anthony with strength of character and not just a mooning lover.
Bobby Bryce as the quirky servant boy, Toby, gave comic flair to his acting, but vocally copied Ken Jennings in the original cast recording too closely. Bill Welch as Signor Pirelli displayed some flair, and Mia Fryvecind Gimenez was consistently vivid as the beggar woman who’s always lurking around.
Michael Morris as Judge Turpin and Paul Zawilski as Beadle Bamford were strong singers — Zawilski has a notable falsetto range — but they didn’t radiate evil as their characters require. This production included an often-cut song for Turpin to alternately express his lust for Johanna and flagellate himself for it. This did not come off well; perhaps that’s why it’s often cut.
The chorus, whose members also take other small roles, gave excellent work in the complex part-singing, and eerily transformed themselves onstage from narrators into the gibbering inmates of an insane asylum for the scene set there.
Members of the Redwood Symphony sat as far back as they could fit in a corner on stage, leaving about half of it free for sets and for empty spaces representing more transitory scenes. From the moment Sweeney made his entrance, climbing out of his own grave (a trap door in the stage), it was evident that Phil Lowery’s direction would be spirited and dynamic. Both the audience and the musicians were occasionally included in the drama. Scenes shifted crisply through the actors’ movements rather than through set changes. Eric Kujawsky’s firm musical direction matched the spirit of the stage direction.
The only staging problems came in the second act, when Sweeney’s barber chair dumps his victims to the side of the stage. From audience left I could see the bodies get up and walk away. Placing the bakehouse oven in the wings created difficulty in the horrifying final scene, which the actors got around as best they could.
The sound balance with the orchestra on stage was more seriously problematic. The instruments were simply too dominating. Even amplified, the singers’ words were drowned out half the time. It depended entirely on how loud the accompaniment was at the moment.