Farmer's Branch — Stephen Sondheim’s dark masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, took the stage Thursday night for a short run produced by the actor-driven L.I.P. Service Productions at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch. The show itself is as enthrallingly ironic, humorous, and horrifying as ever. But in this Shawn Gann-directed staging by a small company that blurs the lines between community and professional theater (in Sweeney there are several Actor’s Equity performers and a 10-person orchestra), L.I.P. Service’s miscalculations and poor choices far outweigh positive elements.
Sweeney Todd, which has a book by Hugh Wheeler, opened on Broadway in 1979 at a moment when the Broadway musical was becoming more “musical” than ever: more singing and less speaking, and with that, more prominent musical content, greater demand for the compositional intricacies and imagination a composer like Sondheim brings to the theater. More than one commentator has classified Sweeney Todd as an opera in all but the decidedly non-operatic singing styles it demands.
And therein lies the most glaring flaw in this brave but ill-conceived production. Even if it’s “only” a musical, Sweeney Todd demands not only insightful acting, but vocal stamina, good command of basics like pitch and diction, and a well-plotted acoustical environment. Jason Leyva is listed as the owner and producer of L.I.P. Service (that’s Leyva’s Independent Productions, in case you’re wondering), and presumably had the deciding vote in giving himself the title role—which may have been the single biggest mistake in the production. Thursday night, Leyva owned a fine dramatic presence as the murderous but motivated barber, but he often sang off pitch and with insufficient control of the vocal line; as with many other members of the cast, phrases disappeared before they ended.
While the rest of the cast didn’t have Leyva’s pitch problems, amplification and balance in the small theater rendered about a third of the sung words incomprehensible. Music director and conductor Brice Biffle led the substantial ensemble of acoustic instruments through this complex score with sure momentum; however, the orchestra of ten skilled musicians, placed barely offstage to the side, often drowned out the singers in this small auditorium. (One may well wonder why more small companies don’t turn for accompaniment to that enduring, expressive, and economical medium of instrumental performance, the acoustic piano.)
From where I sat, Jenny Tucker as Mrs. Lovett turned in the most impressive performance of the evening, appealingly and convincingly personifying the complexity of a role that blends a basic good-natured innocence, situational ethics, and cynical greed, with tragic results. Although she had the most problematic amplification of the entire cast, she delivered her numerous moments in the spotlight with aplomb and a rich Broadway-style mezzo. With minimal singing demands on Leyva as Todd, their duet “A Little Priest” was as unforgettable as ever; her delivery of “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea” were equally engaging and dramatically textured to fit her portrayal.
Elisa Danielle James likewise delivered a strong voice and presence as the Beggar Woman. Rachel Marie Starkey brought an attractive traditional soprano voice to the role of Johanna, but never managed to create any sense of character; Caleb J. Pieterse likewise opted for a pale version of Johanna’s lover Anthony Hope. It was pretty hard to work up a sense of care for this love interest.
Joshua Hahlen brought a welcome measure of intensity as the youthful and earnest Tobias, while Kevin Solis delivered his Rossini-inspired aria as the competing barber Pirelli with required vocal flexibility. Mikey Abrams was perfectly oily as the Beadle, though with limited vocal range (granted, at one point in the second act he’s supposed to sing badly); Greg Dulcie, with his commanding voice, portrayed respectable evil as the Judge, and his rendition of “Pretty Women” with Leyva provided another dramatic high point. Here, in one of his greatest musical-dramatic inspirations, Sondheim gives us a sweet little waltz as a prelude to attempted cold-blooded murder.
Leyva also designed the sets for the production. While fitting organically into the small, renovated theater, his bland and obvious conception added little to the production: in this small theater, a little less literalism would have been more effective. The committee-designed costumes portraying everyday attire in 19th-century London added little to spark the imagination, with the exception of Mrs. Lovett’s assertive red gown. Director Gann successfully created busy crowd scenes with this compact, efficient company, but the major roles were often on their own, never creating a sense of ensemble, and with little flow from one character to another.
One could easily come away with a renewed admiration for the Dickensian and operatic qualities of Sweeney Todd, along with disappointment in this misguided production. There's an option to purchase a meat pie before the show or during intermission, so that might help temper expectations.