Review: High schoolers tackle Sondheim's bloody 'Sweeney Todd' with gusto at The Croswel
Courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
Since Stephen Sondheim has been creating scores, his style has become a punchline in the theatre circuit. Meaning, Sondheim’s catalogue isn’t an easy one to conquer, and you have to work overtime to make the songs work logistically. This year, The Croswell took on one of Sondheim's most challenging pieces for their all area high school production; “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” - a show about a demonic barber who slits the throats of unsuspecting victims itching for a shave.
Musically, this show is all over the place with tough pitches, harmonies, and lyrics that can easily give a cast and music director a headache. So, when you hear the idea of a “school edition” you’re probably thinking that a show that revolves around cannibalism, bloody revenge, and murder isn’t best suited for certain grade levels. In essence, that’s likely correct, but The Croswell Opera House has entrusted their all-area high schoolers to bring it home, and they are able to deliver powerful vocals, characterizations, and concrete motivation to the stage.
Director Eric Parker, and music director Dr. Joseph D. Daniel, make sure not to sugarcoat or sanitize the content. All themes, music, and glorious blood is left intact. It’s clear from the opening ballad, this company of students from all across the state of Michigan into Ohio have done their homework and have a strong understanding of the stakes in the narrative. Hudson senior Pierce Mitchell stands at the center as the titular barber Sweeney Todd (aka Benjamin Barker)- and he’s got a tough job as he carries most of the production on his shoulders. He’s a solid choice for the main role, and delivers his lines with crisp variety and sings each song with passion.
While Mitchell carries the name of the show, his co-stars carry their own weight too. AJ Howard is a stand-out playing Anthony, a lover-boy sailor who rescues Todd and falls hard for Johanna (McKenzie Liberi) - a beautiful young girl who also captures the attention of the sniveling Judge Turpin (Noah Tarsha) and his loyal sidekick The Beadle (Kyle Haeussler), the two main cronies on the chopping block for Sweeney's vengeful quest for justice.
Each young actor brings their own unique characterization to The Croswell stage, although I found myself questioning a few of them, ultimately due to the vocals (which are tweaked just a smidge to accommodate younger singers). Howard finds the correct timing and rhythm in his soothing ballad “Johanna,” who, matched with Liberi, spark enough chemistry to make the relationship believable. Likewise for Mrs. Lovett (Alexandra June - holding her own) who serves as the liaison between Sweeney and the public eye (she also manages a meat pie factory, and they’re to die for). Equally impressive is Anthony Contreras’s frenchman Pirelli who spends his days peddling a supposed “miracle elixir” with his lackey Tobias (Cooper Adams).
Contreras' commitment to the role of the flamboyantly extra Pirelli should not go unnoticed, and neither should Lylah Slupe’s dedication to the Beggar Woman. Considering these characters, while important in their own merits, aren’t on stage for long durations (alive or dead), these actors make a memorable impression that deserves to be commended. The entire company deserves recognition, as each member represents their respective school districts exceptionally, and that’s the best you can ask for.
Equally noteworthy is Michael Lackey’s scenic design which allows for the actors to interact freely, and the contraption used to send those who meet the end of Sweeney’s razors to their final resting place is a bloody riot. While the production couldn’t overcome the occasional sound miscue, or small continuity error (actors would physically ring the doorbell entering Sweeney’s barber shop and then not on subsequent visits) overall, Parker’s staging, along with Marianne Steele’s period appropriate costuming (which glistens favorably under Tiff Crutchfield's simple, but effective lighting) seem to keep the vision and spirit of this production alive and well. Just don’t eat the meat pies.
IF YOU GO: Sweeney Todd: School Version continues through Feb 3rd at The Croswell Opera House in Adrian, MI. Tickets can be purchased via Croswell.org