Well, folks, we’re barely into the new season here in Portland, but already we’ve got a title-fight contender. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET just premiered with Portland Center Stage and it’s…well it’s a bloody mess. But in the good way! Where people die and then get eaten and everyone sings songs about it. It’s a bloody mess in the good way.
Here’s what I like about going to a Portland Center Stage show: the talent is incredible. When PCS puts on a musical, the singing talent eclipses a lot of the other companies in Portland. Portland theater does great musicals no matter where you go in the city, don’t get me wrong, but whereas most of the actors in other companies will just have some undergraduate training in ‘musical theater’, the actors who come to Portland Center Stage tend to also be trained up in ‘voice’ as well as having received classical music training. You can see it on stage as well as in the program. Now, is this talent local? Usually not. Which feels a bit odd when you’re looking at it from the outside, but when you’re in the thick of the show and the house is packed then you tend not to mind. You’re in Portland, it’s a Portland company, and drafting a super-team isn’t cheating in theater.
The lead of Sweeney Todd is played by Aloysius Gigl, whose strength lies not just in his voice (which was commanding and pure), but in his stature. Gigl is an imposing figure, or at least he looks to be, with a hulking frame and rather intense forearms for a barber. I mention this not for swooning purposes but because casting like this changes the reading of the play. In our library of villains and anti-heroes, the larger muscle men aren’t normally the cunning masterminds, and so purely from our cultural context we would read this Todd more as a violent opportunist, slightly brutish, who tags along to Mrs. Lovett’s scheme because the idea presented itself. Oppose this with a Johnny Depp figure in Tim Burton’s film-attempt at this musical where Todd, being lankier and less physically imposing, would be read as an anti-hero who plots and plans his revenge and patiently waits for the right moment because there’s no way he could overpower anyone. It changes things, is all.
Some other singers of note were Gretchen Rumbaugh (Mrs. Lovett) and Eric Little (Tobias Ragg) as a pair, then Louis Hobson (Anthony Hope) and Rita Markova (Johanna) as a pair. Rumbaugh and Little were quite charming because they had to balance both an assumed cockney accent as well as making sure their vocals didn’t sound TOO refined, as their characters were spawned from the unrefined streets of London. Very occasionally you could see the seams start to show but for the majority it was bravely convincing and added some vocal dynamic to the character cast.
The second pair, Hobson and Markova, sang well together, and I mention this because the duets occasionally fell down for the other cast members (we’ll get to that in a moment). Perhaps it was the arrangements being more straightforward, or the earnestness with which both Hobson and Markova did their acting, but all their songs together felt comfortable and strong.
Lastly, a tip of the hat to Matthew Alan Smith (Judge Turpin) for ensuring the Judge was a positively revolting character. One has to be impressed with someone who can be on stage and effectively communicate to a full house, ‘my character really has no redeeming qualities’. I’ve had to play such a character before, and Smith was much more impressive.
Right, well we’ve covered casting as a highlight so allow me to touch upon my other favorite thing about this production before we move onto the part where I’m a critic. Director Chris Coleman did exactly right in his composition of this stage. SWEENEY TODD is not the play to be blacking out and shifting scenery around, so sticking to one set was a great move. What he’s done is by very effectively using the horizontal levels (trapdoor, stage floor, raised floor, windows) for staging, as well as occasionally wheeling in and out very deliberate props (the barber chair, the prison bars, the oven), the narrative flows smoothly from one scene into the next. This is important, because one of the biggest drawbacks of musical theater is that each song tends to feel like it’s own self-contained event and overarching narrative is lost. Not in this case. The story feels interwoven like the streets of London.