Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Sweeney Todd at CUA

Nearly a full month late, but here it is - my very belated but lovingly crafted review of CUA's Fall musical, Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim.

October 18, 2008 - Catholic University of America, Ward Hall, Washington, D.C.

The selection of Sweeney Todd for the performance season, even for a university such as CUA with a strong musical theater program, is bold, ambitious, and even risky as an artistic endeavor. The demands placed on the voices, instrumental ensemble, staging, and overall directing vision are immense. Understanding this, it was with a spirit of cautious optimism that I crammed into the already-packed Ward Recital Hall to experience Sweeney Todd as performed at CUA. Happily, I was surprised, moved, and greatly impressed with the end result.

Many congratulations and kudos first of all must go to Gabe Mangiante, music director and keyboardist extraordinaire, for managing to coax such a full, tight, professional sound out of a relatively young cast. The rhythmic, harmonic, and orchestrational complexities of the score present a formidable challenge, which Mr. Mangiante negotiated with great skill. The entire pit responded with appropriate severity, power, and tenderness under the baton of assistant conductor Randall Stewart. Director Jane Pesci-Townsend's first-hand experience with the show (she filled in as Mrs. Lovett at a 2002 Kennedy Center performance of Sweeney), combined with her years of performance and directing experience, certainly prepared her to shape a dramatic work of fittingly stark visuals and powerful staging.

It may seem obvious to say that the two stand-outs of the show were the male and female leads, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, but, in this case even more so than usual, these main characters truly delivered fantastic performances that commanded the audience's attention at every moment. Phil Cooke's Sweeney was, as particular moments required, vicious, tender, psychotic, furious, and clever, all the while maintaining a remarkably coherent character and dramatic through line. He negotiated the thick, deep, agitated vocal line with unexpected maturity, never forcing any of the multitude of lower passages into an uncomfortable vocal production. An overabundance of praise is hardly possible in describing his work on this role. Danielle Kerlin displayed an even more polished yet eminently fitting character voice as Mrs. Lovett. Although she seemed at times to trace too closely the original Angela Lansbury interpretation in her vocal stylings, Kerlin really drew the audience into the zany yet desperate and tender emotional world of her character.

The Beggar Woman is a small but crucial role in the musical, requiring a voice that is strong and high yet flexible. Danielle Larmett exhibited all this and more, providing the emotional culmination by which the already dark and oppressive emotional arc of this drama finally tears apart at the seams. She should be most proud of this performance, as both her singing and her acting were truly of professional caliber. As her voice and acting skills continue to mature, she is sure to continue to impress audiences wherever she takes the stage.

Christine Menna's Johanna was certainly a suitably lovely singing voice – the main purpose of her character, after all. Her “Green Finch” song was graceful and satisfying, if not as vocally impressive as a richer and more ornate version could have been. Her character came across as somewhat two-dimensional at times, although this is more a result of the script itself than her shortcomings. Gannon O'Brien delivered a healthy and youthful Anthony. The warmth of his tone was a welcome contrast to the harsh timbre of much of the rest of the music, although he could have done more to shape the sustained lines of “Johanna”, particularly through bolder dynamic contrast, stronger diction, and a richer vibrato at the ends of his held notes. More years and more practice will no doubt help assist in these aspects.

Signor Pirelli is meant to steal the show, at least for the one scene in which he is the show, literally. CUA could not have asked for a more suitable performer for this role than Patrick Guetti. Equally effective in comic opera and traditional musical theater roles, Guetti is no stranger to taking the quirky, flamboyant odd-ball role. The silliness of his music, however, should not cause one to overlook the real skill required to capture the vocal and physical essence of such a character. Along with others already mentioned in this impressive cast, Patrick Guetti is certainly a performer to watch out for in the next few years.

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