THEATER REVIEW: Audience wins as Two of Us rises to challenge of ‘Sweeney Todd’

Taconic Hills Performing Arts Center / “Sweeney Todd”

REALLY? Community theater is doing “Sweeney Todd”? They’re doing one of the best and most difficult works in musical theater literature? Are they are doing “Sweeney Todd”–with orchestra—in spite of the fact that the whole cast, crew, and orchestra members have day-jobs, other life-responsibilities and obligations besides theater?

Yes, they’re doing it. Darn well.

While every small theater company, even the so-called “professional” unionized ones, are digging around for the smallest cast, the cheapest production, the most minimal musical accompaniment, The Two of Us Productions seems to be saying, “Hell no!” (Or in the case of wicked “Sweeney,” “Hell” yes!)

Each year this company’s casting is better, the orchestra gets more in tune, and the singing actors roar, murmur and flow with more finesse. But the most astounding thing is that, this time, the leading players out-sing, out-act, and out-move their Broadway and regional counterparts.

A couple of new musical recruits for vocal direction (Paul and Joanne Schubert) probably deserve credit for an especially thrilling choral ensemble. (The group confronts the audience with their luscious big voices and excruciating stillness); and perhaps the Schuberts have something to do with the new technical/vocal leap Constance Lopez has made in the role of Mrs Lovett. Whoever has done it, it’s all good.

The two leading characters are profoundly evil—and yet very attractive. Lopez as Mrs. Lovett, has found the sweet spot that is the character’s wonderful/hideous contradiction. She is warm; she is feminine; she grinds human flesh and bakes it into pies. Joshuah Patriarco as Sweeney sings beautifully, accurately, passionately; and wows when he is architecturally still and also when he unleashes his body to pelt the universe with rage. He is now the best Sweeney I have ever seen (and I have see a lot of them.) At the end of Act I, Lopez and Patriarco perform “A Little Priest” so spectacularly that you may wonder how the second act can compete.

Stephen Sanborn is both stage director and orchestra conductor. As noted above, his orchestras keep improving. However, this time, a good group sounded top-heavy–as if they were using a printed score with its bass clefs amputated. At intermission an explanation emerged, one that involved the downside of “community theater.” But one hears what one hears, and without the lower part of most chords, the sense of key and Sondheim’s wonderful progressions disappear. (If that happens, it’s time to throw some notes to a keyboard and crank them up!) Some soloists waxed “pitchy” searching for harmonics.

Fortunately, the ensemble doesn’t care. They have all their chords embodied.

William Flaim as the young lover, Anthony, brings his excellent singing and individuality to a role that can easily become a stock juvenile. It may have been originally intended as such–in imitation of Grand Guignol tradition, but Flaim’s approach is better.

Benita Zahn as the Beggar Woman makes good choices and sings well in a role that was not well-crafted by the original book writer. In performance, it is often over-energized, but Zahn resists temptation.

Carmen Lookshire as the innocent Toby is impressive and utterly charming in Act I but is sabotaged in what should have been her Act II “moment,” singing “Not While I’m Around.” The key was meant for a young man, and she is uncomfortable with it.

Any chance to hear a Stephen Sondheim musical (especially one that he created at the peak of his powers) should be grabbed.

In musical theater writing, there is Sondheim; and after him, one must slide down a greased pole to find all other lyricists and composers (some of whom were/are excellent). The composer is innovative without ever making innovation an end-in-itself. He has taken the best of musical theater traditions, and with language-craft, subtlety and selected “serious” music sensibilities, created masterpieces like “Pretty Women,” “These Are My Friends,” and “Not While I’m Around,” and the extraordinary second-act contrapuntal mélange.

Get tickets. Yes, get tickets! (518-758-1648) The show runs through October 13 at the Performing Arts Center stage at the Taconic Hills campus.

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