Show offers stripped-down, bloodied-up Sondheim

Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only's production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)
Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only’s production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

If Columbus barbers have noticed a drop in business recently, it could be because the local theater scene is offering not one, but two productions of the bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Those whose taste tends toward the grandiose might want to check out the Ohio State version being presented this weekend at Mershon Auditorium. Those who favor more intimate productions might prefer the Standing Room Only production whose two-week run ends Sunday.

I’ve seen the latter, and I can recommend it with one caveat: The unamplified lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out over the accompaniment. That annoyance aside, the production does right by this darkest of musicals, which features a book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

In fact, it does brilliantly by the musical, thanks to a well-chosen cast and Patrick McGregor II’s ingenious direction.

This is a “black box” production twice over. Not only is the scenery limited to a black backdrop and little more, but the main prop is a black, coffin-shaped box that is continually being moved and upended to serve a multitude of functions. This minimalistic approach might be distracting if McGregor’s cast weren’t so mesmerizing.

Following his starring role in Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables, Bill Hafner again excels playing a 19th century man who’s suffered years of unjust imprisonment. But don’t expect to find much in common between the two portrayals.

Unlike the noble Jean Valjean, Sweeney Todd has vengeance on his mind—vengeance against the judge who sent him away in order to pursue his wife. The former barber’s fury intensifies when he returns to London only to learn that his wife is dead and his daughter has been adopted by that same judge. As portrayed by Hafner, Todd is so overcome by grief and anger that he stumbles around in a state of near catatonia.

In effective contrast, Susan Bunsold Wilson radiates manic energy as Mrs. Lovett, the widowed baker who ultimately becomes Todd’s partner in crime. As amoral as she is personable, Mrs. Lovett quickly finds a way to benefit when the deranged barber’s “shaves” start turning into homicides. It’s no coincidence that her meat pies soon become the talk of the neighborhood.

Both Hafner and Wilson display strong voices on numbers such as their duets By the Sea and the darkly humorous A Little Priest, in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett discuss the optimum ingredients for a tasty pie.

As the dastardly Judge Turpin, Todd Lemmon offers an understated version of villainy that disguises itself under a cloak of piety. Turpin and Hafner join their voices to great effect on Pretty Women, a beautiful song that incongruously arises during a moment of impending murder. A more blatant depiction of evil is offered by Colton Weiss as Turpin’s henchman, the nasal-voiced Beadle.

The musical’s second-most beautiful song, Not While I’m Around, is given a dramatic delivery by Layne Roate as the limping, dimwitted Tobias Ragg. Appearing in other important secondary roles are Ethan White as goodhearted seaman Anthony Hope; Taryn Huffman as Todd’s grown daughter, Johanna; and Laura Crone as a beggar woman and a rival barber.

An impressively large orchestra provides the accompaniment, though music director Josh Cutting ably replaced it with his keyboard at the matinee I attended. Curtis Brown’s lighting not only establishes mood but is used to shift viewers’ focus from one side of the room to the other during quick scene changes.

Filled with dark themes and bloody violence, Sweeney Todd is unsuitable for young children. But SRO’s inventive production makes it a treat for those who appreciate Sondheim’s lovely tunes and graceful lyrics even when they’re sung in the midst of a murder spree.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Remaining show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $12-$21 Saturday, $12-$16 Sunday. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

The Ohio State School of Music, Opera and Lyric Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at Mershon Auditorium, 1879 N. High St., Columbus. Remaining show times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $10 for senior citizens, students, children and OSU faculty, staff and alumni association members. Show isn’t suitable for ages 12 and under. 614-292-3535 or music.osu.edu.

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Homage to silent performer is a bit too talkative

Sarah Ware as Bip in Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of There Is No Silence (photo by Matt Hazard)
Sarah Ware as Bip in Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of There Is No Silence (photo by Matt Hazard)

By Richard Ades

The title There Is No Silence is surprisingly accurate. Even though Ohio State’s original work is inspired by the life of renowned mime artist Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), there’s a whole lot of talking going on.

The show is only minutes old when we’re introduced to Trixie (Jane Elliott), a mime-in-training who can’t seem to keep her mouth shut. At times, she asks for suggestions from the viewers—for example, what should be on the other end of the invisible rope she’s about to pull. (“Me!” an enthusiastic little girl called from the audience on opening night.)

Trixie, who later reappears as a revised character named Marbles, is a lively and personable presence, but she’s too verbose to be an effective mime. It’s not clear why she’s given such a prominent role in an homage to the French master of silence.

However, the show’s main problem is its lack of focus, which is likely due to the number of hands involved in its creation. Conceived and directed by former Marceau student Jeanine Thompson, it also was “devised” by the MFA Acting Cohort and written by Jennifer Schlueter and Max D. Glenn. Add the technological input of the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, and it’s easy to understand why the production goes off in so many directions.

One minute it comes across as a classroom lecture, dutifully ticking off the now-obscure performers who inspired Marceau. At other times, it allows performers to expound at length about their own connections to the artist or his craft.

At still other times, the show delves into Marceau’s challenging relationships with his daughter, Aurelia (Camille Bullock), and collaborator/wife, Anne Sicco (Melonie Mazibuko). In fact, a fierce argument between Cousteau and Sicco ends Act 1—an odd choice, since viewers don’t know enough about the wife to care about the fight’s outcome.

Much more enlightening is an Act 2 historical section that details Marceau’s anti-Nazi activities during World War II. But the show is the most engrossing when its performers honor Marceau’s craft by showing off their own silent grace.

The most graceful of all is Sarah Ware, who captures the essence of Marceau’s stage alter ego, Bip. Another wordless (but musically accompanied) highlight is a dance performed by Aaron Michael Lopez, one of four men who take turns playing Marceau. (The others are Sifiso Mazibuko, Brent Ries and Patrick Wiabel.)

The ACCAD-aided sections, such as one in which the electronically produced outlines of Marceau and a live performer move in perfect unison, are technologically impressive. But our appreciation of Marceau is bolstered more by the segments that honor the mime in the most appropriate way: by showing just how expressive the silent human body can be.

Ohio State Theatre will present There Is No Silence through April 13 in the Thurber Theatre, Drake Performance Center, 1849 Cannon Drive. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20; $18 for faculty, staff, alumni association members and senior citizens; $15 for students and children. 614-292-2295 or theatre.osu.edu.