Monday, August 15, 2011

A Still Edgy Musical Triumphs at Ferndale Rep: A Review

The stage is crowded and full of shadows as the current and very impressive Ferndale Repertory Theatre production of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins. A thin haze that extends over the seats greets the audience returning for the second act: it symbolizes not the romantic London fog, but the mid-19th century London smog, a killing potion of industrial pollution. It’s a dark Dickensian city of such extreme poverty and wealth that a few decades later H.G. Wells projected it into a future of humanity split into different species, the Morlocks and the Eloi, in The Time Machine. That novel, like this play, involves cannibalism.

The story of Sweeney Todd was first told in this same mid-19th century city. An anonymous serial novel and subsequent London stage melodrama depicted a murderous barber whose victims supplied the substance for a baker’s meat pies. At least six film and TV versions followed. In his 1973 play, Christopher Bond added the theme of revenge.

Both the music and the story of this 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler were immediately controversial but eventually very influential. Sweeney Todd is credited with beginning the “grusical” trend in stage musical stories, such as The Phantom of the Opera and Little Shop of Horrors. Its operatic use of song rather than spoken dialogue to tell the story was even more widely adopted. (This musical itself has since been done by opera companies.)

This story concerns Benjamin Barker (played by Craig Benson), a skilled barber whose young wife was raped by the prominent Judge Turpin (Steve Nobles.) To cover his crime, Turpin banished Barker to the penal colony of Australia on a trumped up charge. But as the play begins 15 years later, Barker returns to London with a new name: Sweeney Todd.

His goal is to find his wife. But the baker still in business downstairs from his former barber shop (Mrs. Lovett, played by Elisabeth Harrington) tells him his wife poisoned herself, so Todd’s intent turns to revenge.

He resumes business as a barber catering to gentlemen, to get Judge Turpin under his razor. He has him but loses him, and then spreads his vengeance to everyone with money and power. The bodies of his victims provide Mrs. Lovett with the means to turn her failing bakery into a great success, due to the demand for her meat pies. There is of course much mischief, misdirection and misadventure ahead.

The story also involves Todd’s daughter Johanna (Brandy Rose,) who is now Judge Turpin’s ward and intended bride. Anthony Hope (Philip De Roulet) is the young sailor who falls in love with her. Adolfo Pirelli (Luke Sikora) is a competing barber who threatens to expose Todd, and Tobias Ragg (Kyle Ryan) is his assistant who becomes a confidant to Mrs. Lovett. Beadle Bamford (Craig Waldvogel) is Turpin’s enforcer, Jonas Fogg (Ethan Edmonds) is the asylum keeper, and there’s a mysterious mad beggar woman (Elena Tessler.)

This Ferndale Rep production is a success in virtually every facet, including the singing. Craig Benson has a role that allows him to expand and dominate the stage.  He has the wattage to embody Barker/Todd's confidence in his skills in an era when a barber could also be a dentist and minor surgeon.  Seeing this, we can better understand the power that fuels Todd's self-righteousness.

 Well established as a singer, Elisabeth Harrington (who served also as vocal coach for the production) proves to be an astonishing actor who inhabits the role of Mrs. Lovett physically and fully, without yielding to the temptation to overdo it. In fact all the actors show this discipline, a credit to director Dianne Zuleger.

Steve Nobles finds humanity within the twisted creepiness of Judge Turpin. Brandy Rose and Philip De Roulet are stage lovers reunited from last spring’s The Magic Flute at HSU, and their chemistry adds credence to an otherwise formulaic romance. The young Toby Ragg is in some ways the audience’s representative, and Kyle Ryan takes us on his journey convincingly. With his pure and powerful voice, Craig Waldvogel has probably the most memorable musical moment of the show.

Some Sondheim fans consider this his best work, and the large cast of ensemble singers and the small but tasty live orchestra serve the music well.  This complex production has a unified result due to (among others) Daniel C. Nyiri (scenic design), Greta Stockwell (lighting), Dan Stockwell (sound), Ginger Gene (producer,) and director Zuleger. The makeup and hair design by Brandy Rose is an especially notable contribution.

This version of Sweeney Todd (which includes a revealing scene cut from the Broadway production) runs three hours with intermission. Not everyone will catch all the lyrics (I didn’t) but the story is clear enough. The lyrics have a strong political edge (“See your razor gleam, Sweeney/Feel how well it fits/As it floats over the throats/of hypocrites”), but even if they go by quickly, they convey the bitter irony. The humor is dark, the laughter often nervous. The theme of revenge is so clear however that some in the audience cheered the deaths of the bad guys.

Though the murders and cannibalism are staged for their fiendish entertainment value, there is somewhere the sense that they channel the cruelty of their social surroundings, taking dog-eat-dog to its logical conclusion.  Wheeler and Sondheim certainly make use of the two-dimensional contrivances of melodrama, signalling their irony even in character names (some of which survive from those first penny dreadful fictions.)  But they also give the villains some human moments (Beadle Bamford's song at the harmonium, for example) so there's at least some human reality to the murders, and therefore to the horror that drives one character insane.

Even from our lovely corner of the planet we can observe the growing chasm between the wealthy few and the struggling many. This story from a distant context resonates today, though the simplifications of a revenge drama may be an ominous response.

Sweeney Todd continues weekends at Ferndale Repertory Theatre through August 28.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Con-Artistry with Humboldt Light Opera: A Review

Bill Ryder as Lawrence Jameson and Cindy Cress as Muriel Eubanks in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The sunny Riviera is a real place. In fact, there are two (not counting the hotel in Vegas or the club in Manhattan): the beaches and casinos of the French and the Italian Riviera.

But there is also the unreal Riviera, bordered in time by the 1920s of Scott Fitzgerald and the 1950s of caper films with Henry Mancini scores. Its heart is in the 1930s and 40s, in stories about rich American women out for European thrills they expect to be expensive. That’s the timeless Riviera (despite the PBS tote bag) of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, now on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU, in a bright and winning Humboldt Light Opera Company production.

This show even has the feel of that era’s classic Hollywood musicals. As in those movies, its plot is mostly a pretext: Lawrence Jameson (played by Bill Ryder) is a mature con man masquerading as a dispossessed king of some obscure principality who meets Freddy (Casey Vaughn), a young and unpolished upstart he eventually takes on as a scoundrel’s apprentice. They combine to get Lawrence out of an awkward situation with an oil heiress from Oklahoma (played by Shaelan Salas-Rich), but become rivals in both love and larceny when the sweet young American Soap Queen, Christine Colgate (Hannah Mullen-Jones) arrives. Complications and comeuppances ensue.

The story of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels comes from the 1988 film of the same name starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin (which in turn was very similar to a 1964 film with David Niven and Marlon Brando.) But it’s a pretext for fun, much of which comes from the witty book for this 2004 musical by Jeffrey Lane, and the equally witty lyrics by David Yazbek, who also wrote the music. (He also wrote the score for the musical version of The Full Monty, which HLOC performed a few years back.) It all could still stumble, if not for the brilliance and buoyancy of this production.

The wit comes in wordplay, both conventional (“Money?” “Her people are in oil.” “Crude?” “Well, she is a little pushy”) and inexplicable (Addressing a letter to a German doctor, Christine asks Freddy, “Do you think I should use an umlaut?” “No, you smell great.”) And if those don’t get you, there’s another joke in the next sentence, including some that are cruder than oil. (Language as much as theme is reason for the not-younger-than-11 age advisory.)

There’s lyrical wit as well, and while the music isn’t especially memorable, it includes some witty parodies, as in the sudden Oklahoma production number, or a 1980s bombastic musical love song, which had the audiences laughing from the first florid note. I also detect some sneaky homage in the splashy “Great Big Stuff” to Steve Martin’s own silly hit, “King Tut.”

The fashionable but thankfully occasional breaking of the fourth wall with comments from the stage is sometimes--not always--also done with wit.  For example, when the Oklahoma heiress suddenly announces to Lawrence that they're engaged, he looks out and asks, "Did I miss a scene?"  Which is about what the members of  the audience are wondering at that point. 

There's also physical humor, though that probably derives from the movie, and probably plays better in closeup.  But it still pretty much works.

Bill Ryder plays Lawrence as a self-confidence man with a wary eye on his age. Casey Vaughn’s Freddy is an enthusiastic All-American boy whose breezy vulgarity is more appealing than obnoxious. (Vaughn reminds me of John Barrowman, if that's not too obscure a reference.)  As Christine, Hannah Mullen-Jones deftly plays the sweet awkwardness that captivates the boys. (Her entrance seems a brief parody of Groucho’s in Duck Soup.) Their sunny sincerity may seem ironic, but it places them in the Hollywood musical tradition.

Also like those musicals there are stars of subplots, like the wonderful Cindy Cress and Jim Buschmann whose minor characters blossom into sympathetic and unlikely lovers. In her few scenes Shaelan Salas-Rich is a skillful skyrocket, but even the cast that fills out the production numbers (including stars of other HLOC shows like Molly Severdia, James Gadd and Fiona Ryder) all contribute to the flowing energy, delightful surprises and winsome appeal.

So does the dancing (choreographed by Lela Annotto-Pemberton, Ciara Cheli-Colando and Shaelan Salas-Rich), including one ensemble number done in striking red and black costumes (by Jennifer Trustem) that especially reminded me of a Gene Kelly film. But for all this Hollywood spirit, it’s the use of the stage that vitalizes the evening. Dominated by a simple but mesmerizing starry sky, Jayson Mohatt’s set and lighting eloquently suggest the fantasy context as they serve the action, while creating assemblages that are elegant in themselves.

The singing is of course excellent and the lyrics and dialogue always audible. The staging is efficient and yet full of fun. That all the elements work together at such a high level is just one of the achievements of director Carol McWhorter Ryder. Justin Sousa conducts the admirable 15-piece orchestra. Molly Severdia and John Chernoff are the musical directors, and Megan Johnson does hair and makeup.

I was completely beguiled by this show, and as Lawrence says, “Fun is not to be taken lightly.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels plays the Van Duzer Theatre weekends through August 20.

In theme and mood, Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the direct opposite of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is dark where the HLOC show is light. Its ironies are bitter rather than playful. Yet the current production at Ferndale Repertory Theatre (which I saw on Sunday) is also first-rate in every aspect, with star performances (by Craig Benson and Elisabeth Harrington) and a solid supporting cast. I’ll have a review next week. Sweeney Todd continues weekends through August 28.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

Hannah Jones in HLOC's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"

Two musicals open Friday. In the newly renovated Van Duzer Theatre at HSU, the Humboldt Light Opera Company opens Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a jazzy musical comedy about two con men on the Riviera is based on the 1988 film comedy that starred Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Its songs—said to spoof Henry Mancini and other espionage movie composers—are by David Yazbek, who also wrote the music and lyrics for The Full Monty, another Broadway musical based on a movie. Jeffrey Lane wrote the book for this show, which ran on Broadway from January 2005 to September 2006.

The HLOC show stars Casey Vaughn, Bill Ryder, Hannah Jones, Jim Buschmann, Cindy Cress and Shaelan Salas. It’s directed by Carol Ryder, with musical direction by Molly Severdia, choreography by Lela Annotto-Pemberton, Ciara Cheli-Colando and Shaelan Salas. Justin Sousa conducts the orchestra.  It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 20, beginning with an opening night gala on August 5. Due to subject matter, this production is not recommended for children under 11.

Also on Friday, Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. With its implications of cannibalism, this groundbreaking tale of a murderous barber and complicit purveyor of meat pies was controversial when it opened on Broadway in 1979. But it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, and accolades for its stars, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. After numerous revivals, touring versions and other productions since, this musical thriller has become a Sondheim classic.

The Ferndale production is directed by Diane Zuleger and stars Craig Benson as Sweeney Todd and Elisabeth Harrington as Mrs. Lovett. Also featuring Steve Nobles, Philip DeRoulet, Brandy Rose, Kyle Ryan, Luke Sikora and Elena Tessler, it runs weekends through August 28: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Friday August 12 is Date Night—couples get a complimentary Sweeney Toddy.

Meanwhile, the “extreme makeover” of the Arcata Playhouse, courtesy of the Arcata Sunrise Rotary Club, will be partially complete when it pauses on Saturday, August 6 for a fundraiser to help finish the job. It’s a “Country Cabarette,” an evening of music featuring Cadillac Ranch and the Lonesome Roses, plus guests that include Jacqueline Dandeneau, Rose Armin-Hoiliand, Halimah Collingwood and Steve Irwin. It all starts at 7 p.m., and includes raffles and a chili contest.

Continuing: North Coast Repertory Theatre's production of the comedy The Kitchen Witches.  I review it in this week's Journal.