Theatre Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Shane R. Tanner and Company in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017
Michael Mckenzie & Shane R. Tanner in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017
Michael Mckenzie & Shane R. Tanner in ‘Sweeney Todd’, 2017

To produce “Sweeney Todd” is to attempt to summit one of the most challenging mountains in the musical theatre canon. Stephen Sondheim’s serpentine, contrapuntal harmonies are intimidating even for the most seasoned singers. For the orchestra, the score requires virtuoso dexterity, and the ability to similarly shift on a delicate dime. And then there’s the tone, singular among Broadway musicals, with its macabre amalgam of coffin-black humor, aching romance and grotesque horror.

Given all the bells and whistles—and the blood and guts—it’s a herculean choice for Palm Beach Dramaworks, a company still relatively new to fully produced musicals. At the risk of being the lone (somewhat) contrarian critic, it doesn’t quite come off with the ravishing effortlessness of last year’s “1776.”

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm or industry: Director Clive Cholerton wisely respects the limitations of Dramaworks’ mid-sized space. Rather than chart Everest, Cholerton chisels the source material into a more manageable peak, a decision most apparent in musical director Manny Schvartzman’s minimalist orchestra of five, navigating compositions traditionally performed by 15 to 26 players. This is a two-edged razor: Cleverly and discreetly hidden in a center-stage alcove, the quintet’s performances are spot-on but, by their nature, don’t achieve the sonic blanket of a fuller score, tamping down the atmospheric bombast necessary to lift this demented thriller to its most dizzying heights.

A cast of local and flown-in talent capably embodies Sondheim’s coterie of Victorian lechers, madmen, beggars and naïfs, some more transcendently than others. Shane R. Tanner captures the heft and vocal acrobatics of the title character, a London barber newly released from a trumped-up 15-year prison sentence, who seeks revenge on the corrupt judge who destroyed his life and ravaged his wife. Tanner seethes with thunderous desperation, his singing almost perfect—those high notes can be brutal—but he never reaches the nightmarish potential of Sweeney at his most homicidal, which, even if intentional, feels lacking. The scariest thing about him, for the wrong reasons, is the transparently fake beard he’s forced to don in the production’s early scenes, a styling misstep that’s mercifully eschewed a few songs later.

Shane R. Tanner and Company in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017
Shane R. Tanner and Company in ‘Sweeney Todd’, 2017

Ruthie Stephens brings a delightful, droll wit to Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s co-conspirator in cannibalistic capitalism, charmingly embracing her character’s duality as cold-blooded killer and starry-eyed romantic. Among the female cast, she’s matched only by Shelley Keelor, whose Beggar Woman pierces the polluted air with pitch-perfect requests for “Alms! Alms!” This is a supporting role, yet Keelor’s sonorous voice and overwhelming gusto creates a more memorable Begger Woman than any “Sweeney Todd” production I’ve seen.

Paul Louis Lessard is a lovely, innocent Anthony, whose resonant “Johanna” is a highlight of the production. As Johanna, Jennifer Molly Bell is an accomplished cloistered damsel, rapturously bathed in a golden yellow hue, one of lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas’ many evocative choices.

Among the musical’s villains—admittedly some of the more two-dimensional characters in Sondheim’s oeuvre—Jim Ballard’s Beadle Bamford struts around London in steampunk couture, his movements a ballet of lascivious innuendo. It’s a striking, assertive interpretation that doesn’t always feel warranted. Michael McKenzie’s Judge Turpin is agreeably unctuous, though his self-flagellation scene is limp and unconvincing.

Ruthie Stephens in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017
Ruthie Stephens in ‘Sweeney Todd’, 2017

The production’s comic relief, in the form of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and especially “A Little Priest,” is effective and more than welcome. In a show without a credited choreographer, these buoyant, movement-filled numbers counterbalance the accelerating gloom that pervades the narrative.

When the bodies do begin to pile up inexorably, in Act Two, Cholerton and his design team are equally skillful at managing the ambience. An appropriately shrill train whistle accompanies each slit throat, along with a wash of scarlet lighting. Sweeney then releases the bodies to the second-story barbershop floor, where a hidden lift carries them to ground floor. There’s a ritualistic process to the slaughter, but just when you least expect it, one signature slaying is not even depicted at all.

Like Sondheim’s score, Cholerton’s direction turns surprising corners—opening with a mood-setting prologue, occasionally turning his ensemble into Sweeney’s accomplices, and culminating in a bold climax that reinterprets Sweeney’s last breath.

Controversial? Sure. But Dramaworks doesn’t shy from potentially polarizing decisions. This is a production that swings for the fences in a stadium that’s probably too small for the game. It’s fascinating to see where the balls land.

“Sweeney Todd” runs through Aug. 6 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $67, but if you’re under 40, you can “pay your age.” Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.