by Terrance Mc Arthur
Oklahoma! was a tuneful musical of cowboys and farmers. Fiddler on the Roof created music out of Jewish life. A Chorus Line sang and danced about the lives of performers auditioning for a Broadway show. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street…..
…a musical about a vengeful man with a razor killing his customers? It took Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler to create it, based on penny-dreadful stories and adaptations that have been around since the 1840s, and the Selma Arts Center to bring it back to the Valley through October 20. It’s an R-rated Halloween treat for grown-ups (Keep the kiddies at home, please.), staged with malice and mayhem by director Joseph Ham, and fiercely acted by an ensemble led by Chris Carsten, an actor whose credits range from New York to Singapore.Entering the theatre, the audience is faced with a network of platforms and a massive, blue-smoke-spewing oven glowing in a malevolent red like a telephone booth to Hell. The cooker is part of the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Emily Guyette), where Sweeney Todd (Carsten), a convict escaped from Australia, once shaved customers upstairs. The corrupt, debauched judge (Chase Stubblefield), who sent Sweeney off on false charges and assaulted the barber’s wife, has raised Johanna (Kindle Lynn Cowger) Sweeney’s daughter, grooming her to be his bride. Meanwhile, the young woman has fallen for a sailor (Ben Deghand), who had rescued Sweeney and brought him back to London. The pie shop prospers as Sweeney’s customers mysteriously disappear, and…things get very messy (A major item on the show’s budget is fake blood.).
Carsten’s name on a cast list has become a mark of quality in the Valley, and his Sweeney keeps his standard high. From his first appearance on stage, he radiates danger like a warning beacon. Resembling a picture of Lionel Barrymore drawn by Charles Addams, with an oddly horizontal ridge of hair encircling his head, he is the focus of every eye. In his quieter moments, his voice resonates. As his anger grows, he thunders like a god of vengeance. When he smiles, goosebumps sweep the crowd. He has always been a great performer, but his singing voice has attained an increased richness over the years I have heard him. He can handle Sondheim’s music, which is a major accomplishment for anyone.
Guyette carries off Lovett’s downtrodden, world-weary attitude quite well. With what looks like hair on loan from Helena Bonham Carter, she slams her way through “The Worst Pies in London,” and brings maternal warmth to “Not While I’m Around.”
Stubblefield has made a mark in lightly comic leads, but his fortune-seeking suitor role in GCP’s The Heiress pointed him toward the full-bodied evil of Judge Turpin. He has often looked like he was noticing something just out of sight, which works well for the magistrate trying to place where he has seen this excellent barber in the past. His grayed hair and beard play very well from the audience. The Beadle, who abets the judge’s lechery, is an imposing Daniel Sutherland.
Michael Fidalgo is Pirelli, the celebrity barber challenged by Todd to lure the judge into his chair. Fidalgo smoothly slides between the dialects of the man with secrets and a larcenous mind. Kai Di Mino creates a sympathetic Tobias, the waif-like helper for Pirelli who becomes a surrogate son for Lovett, moving laboriously and powering through some lyrics that border on tongue twisters.
Deghand resembles Keir “2001” Dullea, and co-choreographed the show with Michael Christopher Flores. His clear voice is heard, even when pitted against some major performers. Cowger is engulfed in blonde hair that doesn’t obscure her beauty and sterling voice. Her revulsion when she realizes the judge’s plans is marvelous to behold. Mindy Ramos, as the Beggar Woman with a past, is the vocal director and snaps from soaring pathos to “little old ladies aren’t supposed to act like that and make me uncomfortable” in the blink of an eye.
For a man of such youth, Ham has accumulated some impressive acting and directing chops. His abilities have turned an assortment of performers from many local companies into an ensemble of frightening wonder. Travel to 1935 High Street and pay less than $20 for a ticket to a solid production that is unsettling and nuanced. Call 559-891-2238 or check out www.selmaartscenter.com for tickets and info.
Oh, and don’t eat the meat pies.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out our new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. The first 7 episodes are now up! You can check the podcast out on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.
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