“A barber had a wife—and she was beautiful!” So sings Sweeney Todd at the start of the eponymous musical by Sondheim, in its last two weekends at Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito.
The unlikely lyric from a weary traveler is addressed to a friendly sailor on Todd’s arrival at the London Docks—the sailor unaware that he’s returning under a pseudonym after being transported Down Under. And back with a vengeance, to settle with those he blames for his misery.
But the audience is in the know, thanks to the remarkable chorus that frames the show right from the start, declaiming Sweeney’s bloody reign o’er the barber chair, seething behind the many enclosures of the splendid set, flowing around the audience with song, or sprawling in the beer garden of Mrs. Lovett’s, clamoring for more of the toothsome, fleshly meat pies they just can’t get enough of.
Sondheim’s great hit (which many consider his magnum opus) seemed an unlikely one, but the black humor of a vengeful barber whose bile engulfs all humanity, and the baker-manque he goes into business with in order to stuff her pies with his victims (‘farci’—or sick farce?) is leavened with a love story of the sailor with the lovely ward of a lewd judge--the magistrate Todd’s object of wrath and the girl his absconded daughter.
Sondheim clearly is setting himself up to go head-to-head with that other great, dark crowdpleaser set in the underbelly of old London--and set to modern dissonance and sonorities—Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera and its spinoff, Happy End. Sondheim’s entry didn’t attain to the subversive subtlety of its predecessor, but shows considerable mastery of the idiom, especially in its first half, as well as many little touches which the CCCT production catch very well. It set the standard for years afterwards, influencing the many musicals that aimed at a kind of epic theater, if not a Brechtian one.
Derrick Silva and Anna Albanese are well-cast as dour Todd and his cheery helpmeet; Jennifer Stark as the ever-recurrent Beggar Woman is a strong presence with an interesting voice, though always seen and heard in quick sallies onstage and off. Eric Neiman and Allison Ward as Anthony Hope the sailor and his love Johanna put on an attractive show as ingenues amidst all the squalor and evil--the evil well-turned out by Ray Christensen as Judge Turpin and Steve Yates as Beadle Branford. There’s even a nice cameo for CCCT’s founder, 85 year-old Louis Flynn as the birdseller who blinds his birds so they sing night and day.
CCCT runs a tight ship, from the cheerful, efficient house management to Daren A. C. Carollo’s stage direction (and set design) and the hard-working cast of 21, of which 12 serve in the dynamic chorus.
It’s hard to catch a better local production of Sweeny (and Silva, as well as other cast members, has light opera experience). Sometimes higher registers lose comprehensibility, the lyrics lost up in the flies--a problem the management’s aware of and working to correct.
But the solid technical quality of the show, its fine musicians (musical director Michael O’Dell and three others) and the choreography by Sharnee Nichols—as well as Adam Fry’s lighting and Michael A. Berg’s costumes—make this Sweeny Todd an entertainment which amuses the audience with its outrageous, off-kilter story and lyrics while massaging its sensibilties with Sondheim’s adventuresome—if, like the celebrated meat pies, sometimes gamey—score.
Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.
Contra Costa Civic Theatre
951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito
through March 3