by Dick Kerekes
Players by the Sea opened Stephen Sondheim’s dark masterpiece Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street last weekend to sold out audiences. The show will run through September 27th, and is sure to be one of the hottest tickets in town so call 249-0289 for information and reservations.
Are you wondering why this l979 winner of two Tony Awards has only been done once before in this area in the past 29 years? Even though regarded as one of the best musicals, it is the most horrifying and dark musical ever written and most certainly the most difficult. Player’s production is truly professional, and as one audience member said “as good as the original I saw on Broadway.” The popularity of this show was enhanced last year by Tim Burton’s very graphic film version starring Johnny Depp. It should be noted, while the movie was very bloody while Player’s stage version leaves that part to your imagination and cleverly goes though the throat slitting scenes sans the red stuff.
The story is set 160 years ago in London and tells the tale of Sweeney Todd (Matthew Jay Campbell) who has just returned to the city after being falsely imprisoned by the evil Judge Turpin (Bill Ratliff). It seems the judge acquired a desire for Sweeny’s wife and need to get rid of him so he could have her to himself. Years later, Sweeny has returned with vengeance in his eye since his wife is now dead and their daughter Joanna (Erin Nicole Long) is under Turpin’s control as his ward and living in his home.
Todd’s plan is to kill the judge and his sidekick, Beadle (Jeff Wells) by enticing them into his barbershop and slitting their throats. Sweeny loses control and seeks vengeance on the entire population and any man who comes into his shop is killed and slid downstairs into Mrs. Lovett’s (Dana Branch) bakery where they are made into meat pies.
We encounter other interesting characters in our journey with Todd. A young sailor, Anthony (Josh Waller) falls in love Joanna and seeks to rescue her from Turpin’s clutches. Waller also gets to sing the one of the most popular songs in the show entitled “Joanna.” Amy Allen Farmer is the mysterious beggar woman, who suspects something weird is going on in the bakery from the smell of burning flesh. Douglas Anderson sophomore Chris Robertson gives a Broadway quality performance as Tobias, Mrs. Lovett’s employee. His song, “Not When I Am Around” is one of also one of my favorites in the show. I had forgotten how well Aaron Marshall could sing she has been so busy establishing herself as a musical director. She sings wonderfully as Sweeny’s rival barber, Adolpha Pirelli.
Director Lee Hamby has cast a terrific ensemble of towns people who when they are singing together in several numbers will send shivers down your spine. They are that good. They include Gary Baker, Luke Hopper, Debbie Kristiansen, Miranda Lawson, Aaron Marshall, Brad May, Karl Rogers, Bonny Tennat, Bill White and Kellie Wyatt.
Musical Director Samuel Clein on piano directed the excellent orchestra with Bryant Miano (keyboard) Ricardo Lastrapes (saxophone) Tommy Strong (bassoon) Larisa Melkumova (brass) and Douglas Beard (percussion). Remember the name Samuel Clein, because if he stays in this area, you will be seeing it in a lot of programs as musical director, or you may have the opportunity to enjoy his talents as a classical pianist. Welcome to Jacksonville.
If theatre were an Olympic event, Lee Hamby would have a chest full of medals as a Director, costume designer, performer, choreographer, set designer. The quality of theatre went up several notches when Lee came back from New York and decided to make this home. Lee likes challenges and he met all expectations with Sweeney Todd.
Tracy Olin is the costume designer of the period London attire worn by this large cast and they are excellent. Don’t ask me when she had to time to create, them but she obviously does not sleep. Tracy works full time on the administrative staff of Theatre Jacksonville as ticket and box office manager. In addition, she is creating the costumes for their opening show, The Beaux Stratagem. Oh, did I mention she is also in the show? Do we have any Olympic metals left?
David Paul, Players’ Technical Director along with Director Lee Hamby, designed the Sweeney Todd set that is outstanding. Paul’s ingenious mind also created the very effective barber’s chair that so efficiently gets rid of dead bodies. You have to see it to believe it.
Players’ Executive Director Joseph Schwarz, an award winning light designer, created the evocative lighting design that is so powerfully creates moods for this unique musical.
Director Lee Hamby described this music has hard to and singers will all agree anything by Sondheim is always difficult to master.
The voices in this production are remarkable from top to bottom. Dana Branch as Mrs. Lovett can cook for me and sing anytime. A superbly seasoned and spicy performance indeed Mrs. Pie chef!!
Matt Campbell is the first name you think of if you are casting a tall handsome romantic lead, he has done enough of them, but Mr. Campbell really stretches himself in this role, with his marvelous voice. By golly Matt, if we need a villain anytime, we know where to find one.
This strange tale is unlike any musical you have ever seen, but it deals in emotions we see every day on the screen and in the news. Love, hate, and revenge are nothing new, but seeing it on a stage in this form is certainly different. Oh, there is a good bit of humor as well, even if it is on the dark side.
Take advantage of this rare opportunity to see an extraordinary musical that may not come your way again in your lifetime. Player’s by the Sea is located at 106 Sixth Street in Jacksonville Beach. Want to see some photos from the production? Visit their website at www.playersbythesea.org.
Players will not be serving any meat pies at any of the performance but if you have a sudden urge to consume some meat, there is a Wendy’s right across the street.
by Dick Kerekes