Friday, September 02, 2011

For Shear (Macabre) Delight, Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A musical by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru October 9, 2011

By shear coincidence, on the same day that I posted a blog article saluting my hometown of Skokie and citing a couple notable natives among a relative lack thereof, I attended a superb performance of Sweeney Todd starring Broadway-trod Skokie scion Gregg Edelman in the title role.

Although I must confess to not having previously heard of Edelman, despite him being a fellow Niles North alumni and me an avid musical theater fan, he impressively has 15 Broadway shows--and 4 Tony nominations--to his credit. (I learned of his Skokie connection through the Niles North Wikipedia entry.)

That his co-star Liz McCartney (as Mrs. Lovett) has seven Broadway credits bespeaks the type of talent that Drury Lane Theatre now regularly showcases at its 971-seat venue in Oakbrook Terrace, the last of what once was a small chain.

In fact, with a cast that included a plethora of Chicagoland musical luminaries--many ensemble members were performers I've seen in leading roles--the size of the stage and set design were the only things that suggested this production wasn't Broadway caliber. This was the first local show I'd seen following four on the Great White Way (reviews contained in this post) and the performances and overall timbre seemed every bit as good.

Yes, catching a matinee accompanied by hundreds of attendees of the Senior Living Expo, taking place in the adjoining hall, meant too many crinkling plastic bags and undue conversation during the performance. But this only slightly diminished the raw power of Stephen Sondheim's masterful score and the macabre delight as Sweeney Todd--the former Benjamin Barker--exacts revenges on those who ruined his life, abetted by lovelorn Mrs. Lovett.

I enjoy so many of Sondheim's musicals to such an extent that it's hard to call any one his masterpiece. Ironically, though he is a wondrous composer, likely my favorite, his two very best shows are the ones for which he wrote only the lyrics: West Side Story and Gypsy. But of the many shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics, there is arguably none any better in sum than Sweeney Todd.

Which isn't to say that the darkness of the whole affair doesn't leave me a bit adrift somewhere near the end of Act 2. While I fully respect that Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler chose not to end the score and narrative with any kind of uplift--such as Les Miserables would employ--I think it accounts for why I can't bestow a full @@@@@ on such a ravishing rendition. But that's really a 1/2@ quibble on a truly razor-fine affair.

In addition to outstanding acting and vocal performances by Edelman and McCartney, local stalwarts Kevin Gudahl, George Keating and Heidi Kettenring are superb as Judge Turpin, Pirelli and the Beggar Woman, respectively. William Travis Taylor sings Sondheim's sublime "Johanna" as well as one could hope and Emily Rohm embodies her beautifully. Young Jonah Rawitz is also notably good as Tobias Ragg.

As I referenced above, a slew of area actors with impressive leading-role resumes--including George Andrew Wolff, Larry Adams, Natalie Ford, David Girolmo, Cory Goodrich, Catherine Lord, Patrick Gagnon and James Rank--round out an incredibly deep cast. There literally wasn't a wrong note to be heard and the choral pieces, such as the opening "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," resounded with vilifying venom that rose well above the bag crinkling and chattering around me.

Under the direction of Rachel Rockwell--who after helming an exquisite Ragtime at the same venue last year seems to be on a Gary Griffin sort of career arc; I wouldn't be surprised to read of her directing Broadway productions fairly soon--if this isn't the best production of Sweeney Todd you'll ever see, or the best local musical production of 2011, it sure cuts it close.

Drury Lane Oakbrook offers relatively affordable ticket prices to begin with--certainly compared to downtown Chicago or Broadway venues--but nice discounts available through (I took advantage of this one) and Goldstar shave off even more. To see a show this good for $25 is a real steal.

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