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IN REVIEW: KC Rep produces fine ‘Sweeney,’ but is it time to discuss the ‘Sondheim problem’?

If you like Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, chances are you’ll enjoy the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s finely outfitted production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which runs through April 15th at Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus. Rep Artistic Director Eric Rosen, who directed the show, has a keen intuitive sense for staging Sondheim, as we saw in the Rep’s meticulous 2015 version of Sunday in the Park with George. His goals: first and foremost make good theater, with a focus on acting and on character development and with loving care lavished on diction. This latter is especially important in Sondheim, for it is as lyricist that this icon of theater most often excels. His musical abilities, on the other hand, remain a subject of controversy.

Ellen Harvey performed the role of Mrs. Lovett, the scheming baker-shopkeeper, on a world-class level. This was not surprising: She is a prominent Broadway actress with a lovely voice, a mouth-chewingly expressive Cockney, and exceptional acting skills growing from a faultless sense of comedic timing. (Eric’s direction doubtless deserves credit here, as pacing and delivery are among his notable gifts.) It is of historic interest that the original Mrs. Lovett, Angela Lansbury—initially reluctant to play second-fiddle to Todd’s character—convinced Sondheim to make this into a larger role than he had originally intended. As such, productions of Sweeney Todd quite often ride more on her performance than they do on that of the actor in the title role. This was one such production.

Which is not to say that Tally Sessions’ take on the title role was anything less than top-drawer. With his face painted pale at the outset, he drew on dark, sinister energies that convinced us more of a cold-blooded killer than of some formerly warm-hearted man whose love was twisted into resentment. By the time we see this Sweeney, lust for vengeance has already overtaken him, and this permitted us to observe perhaps fewer shadings or subtleties in the role than usual. Tally’s voice is more Broadwayish than operatic, and at times the electronic amplification was rather unflattering to its sonorities.

Chris McCarrell’s Anthony was a model of youthful ingenuousness, with a warmth and charm that helped counterbalance Sweeney’s ever-bitter presence. Christian Whelan, who stepped in for Merwin Foard on Opening Night, played the part of Judge Turpin with a ponderous insidiousness that reminded me of the better Don Giovannis I’ve seen; his voice was not quite up to the challenge, but worked well enough. Lauren Bratton was wittily annoying as the mysterious Beggar Woman; Tim Scott (Pirelli), Emily Shackelford (Johanna) and Bradley J. Thomas (the Beadle) performed with command and in quite decent voice.

Photos by Cory Weaver / KC Rep

Jordan Haas, a gifted local teen actor with a strong voice, played the role of young Tobias with well-gauged vulnerability and pathos. His duet with Mrs. Lovett, “Not While I’m Around” (in which he airs his suspicions that Sweeney might be up to no good: “Demons will charm you with a smile, for a while”) virtually stole Act II with its earnest simplicity. And Tobias’ despair upon discovering the horrors to which he had been accessory was heartbreaking.

Anthony T. Edwards conducted the 10-piece instrumental ensemble with his usual aplomb. With the musicians perched atop an oddly complicated upstage structure, Jonathan Tunick’s raucous orchestrations—more Weill than Rodgers, to be sure!—were pushed to the forefront of our “soundscape.” As a result they felt as much a part of the production as the actors (though only occasionally did the instruments drown the singers to any great degree.)

Jack Magaw’s scenic design was detailed in its two-levels-in-one concept, in which each newly butchered customer would slump down out of Sweeney’s barber chair only to then drop like dead-weight from above—as if to transport us, magically, to the “chef’s cellar” below, where the cadavers were processed and, well, made into the most delicious pies in all of London. Linda Roethke (costume designs) and the entire production team produced a convincingly accurate “look” without over-sensationalizing what can be quite a gory array.

A MATTER OF TASTE (de gustibus non est disputandem)

Again, if you love Sondheim, you’ll be fine with this production. If on the other hand you care anything about the fact that musical theater is in fact musical theater, you might come away from it with the same alarming sense of despair that I always do when hearing a musical by Sondheim. To be sure, the award-winning hero of stage and screen and so forth has collaborated with fine authors—Hugh Wheeler’s books for Sweeney and A Little Night Music are just shy of brilliant, as are James Lapine’s for Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods. And there’s no denying that Sondheim is one of wittiest, most ingenious lyricists American musical theater has produced. A composer, however, he is not.

Let’s take his famous “A Little Priest,” for example, which closes the Sweeney Act I. Its main tune consists of a short ascending melodic “hook” and a half-dozen subsequent pitches, occasionally rearranged, which are then repeated hundreds of times (or so it seems to the ear). The only thing that makes this tolerable is the good fortune that it is a concatenation of two songs: The more melodic “Epiphany” makes the whole mishmash palatable.

To be sure, the lyrics of this number are amusing: Clever verse has always been Sondheim’s strength, as we know. Lovett sings of the varying flavors one might find in “human pies”:

Todd: Anything that’s lean?

Lovett: Well, then, If you’re British and loyal, / you might enjoy Royal Marine. / Anyway, it’s clean. / Though of course, it tastes of wherever it’s been!

Lyrics aside, though, the most common Sondheim song is of the drillbit-into-the-skull variety: It’s as if the very strength of the storytelling and the wit and wisdom of the lyrics have blinded many to the paucity of musical substance.

A wise music professor once told me: If you find a piece of music (or the work of a particular composer) difficult, don’t always assume it’s the music. It might be you: Maybe you’re just not ready for Pelléas et Melisande or Wagner’s later works or Shostakovich’s “Leningrad”—or even Cats. And perhaps you will be later, after you’ve seen more of the world, after you’ve heard or studied more.

Over the years I’ve taken this lesson to heart many times, mostly to positive effect. I still don’t listen to much Debussy, but I’ve grown fond of Parsifal and love Shostakovich. (I’m still working on Cats.) For Sondheim, the clock began ticking the moment I heard, as a lad, Judy Collins’ lovely rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” A rather fetching tune, sung here by a voice far more beautiful than just about any you’ll hear on Broadway today. (A topic for another discussion, another day.) Yet even “Send in the Clowns” illustrates the repetitive nature of Sondheim’s sensibilities: It’s basically a single ascending lick followed by a floating bridge and a few chord changes. Compare that admittedly poignant ditty to Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, which opens with a continuous, heart-rending melodic flow that spins out for a full four minutes (beginning at 0:48) virtually without letup. All of Sondheim pales next to the likes of this.

Perhaps Sondheim’s fatal mistake, after penning the lovely lyrics for West Side Story (with three geniuses—Laurents, Bernstein and Robbins—by his side) was to presume that only he could fulfill his “vision” of what a musical should be—by producing both lyrics and music. With this began the downward slide of musical theater, which even at its pinnacle (Gershwin and Bernstein, for the most part) had still barely achieved the musical level of middle-period Verdi.

To conclude: Despite the highly polished production with which KC Rep chose to close its auspicious 2017-2018 season, I walked out of the theater with a new sense of resolve: I’ve had enough. I now believe I’ve amassed the musical capacity and the life-wisdom to say the bitter truth about Stephen Sondheim: As a composer, he is a master of the banal.

Recently, Sondheim let slip a rather telling comment about his creative process. “I’ve always sipped something [alcoholic] when writing lyrics,” he told The Guardian in 2012, “because it’s the words that are difficult. Writing music is hard, too, but you can always just sit at a piano and move your fingers around the keys—even if you’re not writing, you feel like you are. Lyric-writing is all sweat.” So he admits it: He sits and noodles around the keyboard because he doesn’t consider composing all that difficult. A sure sign, perhaps, that nothing especially good is going to come of it? No wonder his tunes sound like noodling: That’s exactly how they’re produced!

—Paul Horsley

 For tickets to Sweeney Todd, and for information about the Rep’s intriguing 2018-2019 season, call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.

 To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

 

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