Sweeney Todd a smash at Paramount

By Bill Beard 

Once again, there is a splendid new show at Aurora’s impressive Paramount Theatre. Let me sincerely urge you Stateline Theatre Goers to take the easy drive down I-39 and East on I-88 to enjoy some of the best professional theatre in the Midwest. No need to fight Chicago traffic. There’s great stuff going on much closer.

I only found Aurora’s “Broadway at the Paramount” series when I was invited to a performance of their then current Hairspray, which featured Rockford’s own Grand Dam of Jazz, E. Faye Butler; and it turned out to be an utterly delightful show. The superb quality of that production made it obvious that I simply had to return to see what they would do with the darker and much more demanding West Side Story. It too provided a fascinating, innovative concept, and proved how versatile and inventive their Artistic Director, Jim Corti, could be. The two shows finishing the season were the light and romantic Mamma Mia, followed by a colorful production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Great fun, with abundant audience appeal.

But currently Corti is offering what I would consider a very dark musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Set in 19th century England, the plot deals with the return of the barber Sweeney Todd to London, after having served 15 years in exile prison, banished by the corrupt Judge Turpin. When he learns that in the interim, the Judge had married Todd’s wife, Lucy, and had driven her to madness and her suicide; then forced the daughter, Johanna, to live as his own child, Todd vows revenge, by conspiring with a local baker, Mrs. Lovett, who is in desperate need of fresh meat for her pies. He sets up his new barber shop in the empty room above Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shoppe; and their sordid business begins.

Paul-Jordan Jansen plays Sweeney Todd and Bri Sudia is Mrs. Lovett in Paramount Theatre’s Sweeney Todd-The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Liz Lauren photos

Now to me, Sondheim is the consummate creator of musical theatre.

Even his failures are better than much of what Broadway praises. And he has covered a wide spectrum of subject matter, from the ridiculous to the sublime (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Company) to (Sunday In The Park With George and West Side Story).  His music is often unbelievably complex, and his lyrics even more-so. His melodies often reflect his love for opera, as in A Little Night Music and Sunday In The Park.

But in Sweeney, he gives in to both. He reaches to his darkest mode and then magnifies it with a continuous homage, almost a reverential deference to opera. This of course requires singers with voices which can handle the score, and also supply the acting ‘chops’ to create the drama. Luckily, this cast is supremely capable of doing just that, and with almost enough flexibility to also do justice to the limited comedy elements sandwiched in.

Sweeney and Lovett are central to the action, of course, with several subplots entwined around that core. Sweeney’s obsession for finding his beloved wife and daughter dominates the bulk of his character; and the impressive Paul-Jordan Jensen embodies that passion throughout the action. His splendid voice is powerful and perfect for this role.

Indeed, Mr. Jensen is the epitome of what this character should be.  His image is that of a man with a ferocious determination to find his revenge. Jensen maintains that brutal image throughout. However, he seems to rely heavily on that very image to sustain his fierceness, with little else to add dimension to the character. His most successful moments are in the songs with Lovett, wherein their chemistry flares and brightens, most enjoyed in the Act One finale, with the

Mrs. Lovett on the other hand, is a montage of bits and pieces of weird little traits and tricks which she has developed and can improvise into whatever her momentary scheme requires. But she is a much more complex psyche; the perfect challenge for the magnificent Bri Sudia, whose brilliant portrayal of Ruth in Goodman Theatre’s last hit, Wonderful Town, has catapulted her into star status.

Sudia explores the full range characterization of Mrs. Lovett; from the absolute desperation of a woman trying to find some bits of living in her so-called life, to the silly scatter-minded escapades which she uses to try to keep her head above water. She is always on the verge of hysteria, constantly improvising, relying on her wit and desperation to save the moment. Ms. Sudia captures all that and more. She uses her multiple talents, a rubbery face, a flexible physicality, an uncanny sense of comedy and her perfect timing, to find every tiny bit of fun in the role. She is a comedy genius!

Once again Artistic Director Jim Corti has assembled a superb cast from Chicago’s ever-growing collection of talented performers, beginning with the stunning Cecilia Iole as Johanna. New to the Paramount, her waiflike beauty and her exquisite lyric soprano voice create the perfect ethereal ingenue; and is marvelously matched to the gorgeous voice and boundless energy of the handsome Patrick Rooney as the young sailor, Anthony Hope. Their first act duet, “Kiss Me” , and his exquisite rendition of the haunting “Johanna” were two of the musical high points of the performance.

The role of Tobias Ragg, Mrs. Lovett’s devoted, but ill-fated young helper, innocent of what he is doing, is sensitively handled by the endearing Anthony Newman.  Special kudos to Emily Rohm as the Beggar Woman, a role which could easily have become an overdone distraction, but handled here with sensitivity and balance. On target.

As always, the design elements are extraordinary. How could they not be, with designers like Jeffrey Kmiec for scenery, Theresa Ham on costumes, Lighting by Nick Belley and Jesse Klug, and Patrick Ham creating some super special effects. All visual elements were carefully coordinated, cohesively unified. Although perhaps the sequences between the “shave” and the “furnace” could be a bit more inventive, although the voluminous gusts of blood red smoke was an ingenious surprise.

Only one thing bothered me. I had heard that the set was amazing; humongous, filling the entire stage house; consisting of complex metal scaffolding, multiple levels and lots of stairs, offering marvelous opportunities for blocking and movement. So when the show opened in complete darkness, with only one actor standing front stage and with only a tight area spotlight on him, the effect was impressive. And then suddenly the entire stage was brightly flooded with basically blood red light, and the effect was startling, thrilling; worthy of high praise.

That moment was “real theatre”. But as the play progressed, I realized that the action, superb though it was, seemed sometimes overshadowed by the set; a bit lost in this huge beautiful box.

One other mention. The Paramount has a marvelous Orchestra Conductor in Mr. Tom Vendafreddo. He has been the musical foundation for every show I’ve attended.

However, for Sweeney, the balance was off. Perhaps because this score is not the usual expected musical comedy fare. As mentioned earlier, it is far more complex, and rises often to operatic levels. The orchestra was well up to the challenge; but I’m afraid I lost the singers’ lyrics more often than I should have. The result for me was the enjoyment of a spectacular orchestral score, but at the cost of missing too many of the clever, intricate vocal moments of the cast.

However, these few flaws are only minor, and should in no way make one hesitate seeing this show. It is far too brilliant a production to miss!

Sweeney Todd plays through March 19. For information: 630-896-6666 or online at ParamountAurora.com.

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