THEATER REVIEW: Mac-Haydn ‘Sweeney Todd’ deftly navigates dark tale

Sweeney Todd / Mac-Haydn Theatre

THOU SHALT NOT EAT thy fellow man. That’s in the Bible, isn’t it? No?

“Sweeney Todd” is a morality tale shaped by the musical theater genius of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. It makes the eating your fellow man entertaining, laughable–even palatable. (Oh dear.) That is, when it is not terrifying you or quietly or noisily inviting you to look at something darkly true.

But the important music-thing and theater-thing is Sondheim. Sondheim is beyond good. I predict that his late-20th century work will still be savored and revered by your great-, great-grandchildren. And you’re in luck! At Mac-Haydn Theater there is a wonderful production.

Before I describe the wonderfulness, let me go quickly through my few carps. 1) The actors portraying the young lovers (Johanna and Anthony) have no sexual chemistry. When they repeatedly sing “Kiss me,” it could easily be “please pass the oatmeal.” 2) And when the young Anthony sings, “I feel you, Johanna,” it seems as if his attention is glued to his own (very good) voice rather than to her charms. 3) The jiggly movement in the vocal technique of Kelly Gabrielle Murphy as Johanna is tremolo rather than vibrato, a defect that may be related to her occasional pitch problems. 4) The extended gyrations of the ensemble in the lunatic scene make the audience uncertain about whether to shrink in horror—or laugh. 5) In spite of their excellent singing, the actors playing Judge Turpin and Tobias may be age-miscast, the former being too young and the latter not young enough.

Sweeney Todd (Mark Hardy) and Mrs. Lovett (Emily Kron) prepare their mayhem in the Mac-Haydn Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd.” The Steven Sondheim show runs through August 6 at 1925 Route 203, Chatham, 518 392-9292, machaydntheatre.org Photo contributed

The wonderfulness at Mac-Haydn begins with the material: words and music. No one in musical theater creation assembles words with such craft, intelligence, wit and psychological truth as Sondheim. No other musical theater composer has gathered as much musical literacy, attractive modern and historical musical vocabularies, and put them to such integrated use. The “modern” dissonances float from the serious music world to serve the horrific elements in this story. The show begins and ends with thrilling, terrifying choruses of Londoners. In between, harmonies cut and bleed to serve Sweeney’s rage and madness. The score respectfully borrows the whole spectrum of theater music and gives old and new forms (brows high and low) subtlety as well as appeal.

Surprisingly, all that intelligent goodness betrays no hint of compositional snobbery. With book writer Hugh Wheeler, the man has taken old-time, extravagant Grand Guignol and made art, philosophy and entertainment.

The score easily transitions from raging dissonance to the scale-wise, vaudeville-style tune, “By the Sea,” to Sweeney’s impassioned arias, to the beautiful “Pretty Women,” a ballad that works both as its luscious self and as purveyor of scheming and lustful character elements. Of course you are allowed to forgive yourself for laughing long and loud at the outrageous, gruesome puns in “A Little Priest.”

Always there is Sondhiem’s emotional logic, which is likely to drag you up, down and sideways.

Thanks to both casting and to musical direction by David Maglione and Jillian Zack, the Mac-Haydn ensemble is quality. Their sound is rich, musical and accurate, and the words come clear.

The role of Sweeney is famous for being a killer of voices, but Mark Hardy navigates it with keen emotional connection and apparent vocal ease. His face is perfect. It’s a ruggedly handsome face, topped, for this role, with an abundance of steely waves and curls. His good looks add an extra dimension to his relationship with Mrs. Lovett. Her desire for him and her wish to create a conventional life with him effectively offsets his rage and mad quest for revenge upon the entire human race.

Mrs. Lovett’s character is a vivid reminder of a human reality: An attractive exterior, an absolutely real niceness and warmth and striving for middle class respectability can sit easily over murderous, ghoulish, profit-seeking criminality. How easily she cooks and serves up the flesh of her fellow Londoners and cheerfully counts the daily pence and pounds. (Sorry about the “pounds” reference.)

Emily Kron adds to Lovett something important that is not emphasized in the script. It is her super-femininity and super-liveliness. It brings extra contrast to the character’s gruesome practices. It is something important, and Kron serves it up. And thank you, director John Saunders, for your contribution to that.

Saunders’ direction also has the virtue of allowing an audience to forget that the performance is in the round and that he is required to make those well-known adjustments in staging. He helps one forget about it.

Jimm Halliday dresses Kron tellingly when she begins to savor the profitability of her crimes; and the transition from the ensemble’s relentless blacks to the dusky, touchable golds, paisleys, mauves, earth-grays and greens in Act I is especially satisfying.

Don’t miss “Sweeney Todd.” Go. Go for the excellent Mac-Haydn voices, the gifted cast, the Halliday costumes, and Saunders direction. Most of all, go for the Sondheim.

The show runs through August 6 at The Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Route 203, Chatham, 518 392-9292, machaydntheatre.org

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