Review: Sweeney Todd at the Kahilu Theatre

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Sweeney Todd, where the blood is an effect of the lights and the guts is all music

Hawai’i Performing Arts Festival’s “Sweeney Todd : The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” brings us to a stylish mod/London punk set, with miniskirts and high heeled sneakers and that fog creeping across the floor like a ghost coming and going, the spirits of those bloodily dispatched by the demon barber perhaps. The Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical is delivered with operatic voice, the power of the music accenting the macabre and the mayhem.
Jesse Malgieri as Sweeney Todd unrolls as a tragic figure as much as a crazed serial killer. Ripped from his wife and daughter on charges he tells us were trumped up, he seeks them again having escaped from prison in far off Australia. He is accompanied by the naive young Anthony Hope, played by Jack Kay, a sailor who came along with him on his long voyage home. Jessie Malgieri and Jack Kay, what voices!
A beggar woman, Grace Wipfli, flounces and trounces across the stage, successfully touching the heart of young Anthony but failing to interest Todd in her plight or her body, thrust baudily in his direction. Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the character of the beggar woman sings and bouncily struts in her glorious mess back and forth across each scene, keeping the audience well aware of the sordid sewerish scene that is this particular London. Wipfli’s performance nudges us into the sense that there is something about her we ought to be aware of –  what is the story of this woman? What makes her so important that she keeps appearing, reminding us of her desperation? The sense grows as the performance continues that we owe her compassion, and eventually we understand why. 

Jesse Malgieri as Sweeney Todd

Malgieri’s Sweeney Todd is darkly brooding, bent upon revenge, and without the lascivious edge one might expect in this murderous barber. Instead, the errant sexual deviancy is concentrated in the character of Judge Turpin. Malgieri conveys the deeply troubled Todd as essentially anhedonic, detached from nearly everything except his vengeance. 

Amy Maude Helfer

Amy Maude Helfer, as Mrs Lovett, the purveyor of the worst pies in London, is drawn to the mysteriously dark character of Sweeney Todd. She has saved his barber’s razors and returns them to him. He recognizes within them his true dharma; vengeance on the judge, vengeance for both the theft of his freedom and his family. His daughter is still in the clutches of the pious Judge Turpin, played by Joshua Lindsay. The judge reveals himself as being as demented as the demon barber, keeping his ward Johanna imprisoned like a bird in a cage, while he lusts after her and spies upon her and imagines himself forcing himself upon her. Lindsay’s skillfully rendered Judge Turpin is viscerally vile and hateful, far more so than the introspective and deeply wronged Sweeney Todd, whose madness has been thrust upon him unjustly and cruelly. 
Amy Maude Helfer’s Mrs. Lovett is the neighbor you would not trust in your kitchen, and whose pies truly must be the worst pies in London, before and after her association with the barber. She so thoroughly embodies this character that should you encounter her outside the role, much as you might always sense a bit of Hannibal Lecter in Anthony Hopkins, so Mrs. Lovett has a certain indelible ink stain about her. 
Sara Law as Johanna might have been one more little helpless female, but instead is a nightingale in a cage, a fluttering songstress winged bird, flapping her arms or are they wings against the spirit of captivity. In her we see a chance for someone in this sordid mess to escape and recover the semblance of a life. Her large voice adds to the power of her performance as a not emotionally helpless, yet physically captive, long blonde haired object of carnal desire. 

Mark Munoz and Will Koski

The murderous tale takes shape as Sweeney challenges Adolfo Pirelli (Mark Munoz) to a barbering contest. Then Pirelli discovers Sweeney’s true identity as the escaped convict Benjamin Barker, and returns to blackmail him. Munoz as Pirelli gets under your skin, his soaring tenor overtaking you. Todd will not be stepped upon again and dispatches the unsympathetic Pirelli in waves of blood, the red lights flying in blotches across the stage set like lava flying from our volcano. Brittany Merenda’s vision appears to have been influenced on an emotional level by the waves and rivers of blood like lava inundating our island at this time. Mrs Lovett suggests a handy and thrifty use for the meat of the body, thus making for one less monetary expense in this verminous impoverished London. 
Amy Maude Helfer is coy in one mode, devilishly complicit in another, with a female swagger that boldly asserts her persona. Helfer and Law are able to take their characters onto a level that simply makes you love theater.  It will be a treat to see Rhealee Fernandez in the role of Mrs. Lovett in this ensemble in the Hilo production at the Palace Theater on Saturday night. I would expect the ambition and verve she brings will add new dimensions to the character. 
The simple boy Tobias Ragg (Will Koski) is taken under the wing of the outwardly kindly accomplice in crime Mrs Lovett after Pirelli is done away with, but he cannot help but notice untoward things are going on around him. Koski is beautifully persuasive in his changing perceptions of the world he finds himself within.  His character is fully painted into the opera, persona and voice. Beadle Bamford, skillfully played by Nicholas Pierle, is the character through which it appears the judge will be delivered to Todd for his final reckoning, but alas, no. Pierle’s musical turn at the “piano” onstage was delightful. 

The chorus/ensemble

Director and choreographer Justin John Moniz presents a tight and thrilling piece that does not rely on wrapping the audience into the show in contrived ways, but knocks away at our senses and sensibilities, forcing everyone out of any tight little comfort zone they may have pulled around them like a theater shawl. To watch this production is to be woven into it. You will find yourself the emotional accomplice of Moniz as much as of any of the characters upon the stage. 
The music, the operatic voices, the orchestra, these are the forces that sweep the audience up into a place both emotional and fictive that is far removed from ordinary life. Jennifer Tung’s musical direction is stellar. We have no choice but to let go of our moorings and be swept away.
The chorus/ensemble deserves more than an honorable mention. As with classic theater, the chorus is its own character. Acting as one, the talents of many combine to deliver the background that informs the entirety. The full ambience of the production rests upon them.
HPAF’s delivery of this operatic tour de force comes complete with meat pies before the performance, and available at intermission. The audience ate it up. 

All photos: Steve Roby

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