Maniacal, murderous musical makes marvelous thriller

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By Bob Evans

For a quality production that features spectacular voices, skilled acting, and stunning technical aspects, make plans now to see the KC Rep’s newest show, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” that opened Friday, March 30 on the UMKC campus.

As it is Artistic Director Eric Rosen’s scheme to combine New York talent with local talent for most productions, he secured several top-caliber New York performers to lead the production of “Sweeney Todd,” and then signed on some of the best locals to complete the cast, resulting in a streamlined show that entertains from beginning to end with some unique twists and turns along the way.

“‘Sweeney Todd’ at KC Rep is mesmerizing,” said Darren Sextro, esteemed local director, “with a cast (including local artists Lauren Braton, Emily Shackelford, Bradley J. Thomas, Tim Scott, Melinda MacDonald, Colleen Grate, Joe Carr and Jordan Haas) that more than rises to the sophisticated and detailed level of the physical production. Congrats to Eric and Anthony and their teams for creating something that should make the KC Rep very, very proud. Everyone needs to see this before it closes on April 15.”

“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of a man who returns to London after 15 years away. He wants to find his wife and daughter to re-establish his life. Grave circumstances cause him to turn to the darkness, seeking revenge for what he learns about his family. As the play develops, Sweeney gets more desperate. To keep things a bit lighter and balance Sweeney’s dastardly delights, Mrs. Lovett provides the sparkle. She’s a baker and shopkeeper who bakes “The Worst Pies on London,” as she claims that meat is far too expensive and cat and other substitutes work as well.

However, once paired with Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett’s fortune changes and almost overnight, and her pies become the rage of London and Fleet Street. Mrs. Lovett’s heart becomes her downfall as she falls for the deeply burdened barber and allows her motherly instincts to undertake a street urchin who needs a mother’s care.

Along with this, there must be a love interest in every musical ever made, and, so too, “Sweeney Todd” brings in a story line involving a young sailor and a “damsel-in-distress” character, Johanna. The Stephen Sondheim musical takes musical theater in an entirely different direction with the main character of Sweeney being an anti-hero and terribly dark in nature. There must be a bigger and more evil demon to oppose him–and there is, the Judge.

For the two main characters, Tally Sessions as Sweeney and Ellen Harvey as Mrs. Lovett excel. Their performances provide an exaggerated balancing act between evil and laughter. He’s bad because of circumstances inflicted upon him; she’s light-hearted and funny/quirky throughout. Their chemistry explodes as the show progresses. Both develop depth of character and find the nuances needed to show the character changes. Both actors make their KC Rep debut with “Sweeney Todd.”
For the secondary leads, the young lovers, Chris McCarrell and Emily Shackelford give chills with their vocal performances. Their limited time on stage does not detract from the caliber of their performances as both give really grounded, strong performances. McCarrell debuts with KC Rep in this production while Shackelford returns as a seasoned veteran of KC Rep.

As the beggar woman with a history, Lauren Braton, disguises herself in layers of ragged clothing, a horrendous wig, and tattered rags to create a memorable character, so different from what KC audiences know of her. Braton is completely unrecognizable in this character and carries it off with rock-solid stage presence. For levity in the show, two other locals give forceful and funny performances. Bradley J. Thomas and Tim Scott create some outlandish characters and provide some comic relief. Thomas is especially charming as the Beadle, in Act II at the piano.

One more noteworthy performance comes from a Blue Valley sophomore, Jordan Haas, making his KC Rep debut in his first almost-adult role as the young man taken in my Mrs. Lovett to help with her pies and pie shop. Haas uses his clear tenor voice in a several solo pieces and as part of ensemble numbers. He’s been seen previously throughout the metro area over the past 10 years.

The cast as listed in by the KC Rep is: Lauren Braton, Joseph Carr, Colleen Grate, Jordan Haas, Ellen Harvey, Melinda MacDonald, Chris McCarrell, Tim Scott, Tally Sessions, Emily Shackelford, Bradley J. Thomas, Christian Whelan, John Michael Zuerlein.

As for the technical aspects of the Rep’s “Sweeney Todd,” one can tell that no aspect was left un-perfected. The musical direction and orchestra could not have sounded better or been more beautifully lit than in this production. Anthony Edwards and his orchestra were incredibly good. His team was: Daniel Doss, assistant music director; Tracy Bass, Mark Cornick, Eman Chalshotori, Jeff Harshbarger, Brett Jackson, Michaelis Koutsoupides, Alla Krolevich, Steven Molloy, Sam Wiseman.

Director Eric Rosen, again, found the right talent to bring “Sweeney Todd” to the high standards expected at KC Rep. Standout aspects were the sound design, lighting, and costumes. The production crew is: Anthony Edwards, music director; Linda Rothke, costumes; Chip Miller, assistant director; Jason Chanos dialect coach; Amanda Zieve, lighting design; Daniel Doss, assistant music director; Alison Hanks, wig design; Jack Magaw, scenic design; Bart Terstriep, movement coordinator; Stephanie Klapper, New York City casting; Tenley Pitonzo, assistant stage manager. Worthy of special note, stage manager, Mary R. Honor completes her 60th KC Rep production with “Sweeney Todd.”

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” continues in Spencer Theater on the UMKC campus through April 14. Opening night was the first sell out of this production. Advance tickets can be purchased via the KC Rep website.

Tags: KC Rep, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, UMKC, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment

Images courtesy of KC Rep, Bob Evans and Cory Weaver and KC Rep

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