David Moan and Sarah Briggs in a scene from “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.” Now playing through October 22nd at The Encore Theatre in Dexter MI.
As I was entering The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” I was informed of all the discretions involved in the show. Strobe lights and gunshots, you know, the works. I was then told the production also contains blood that could potentially make its way onto my lap if I wasn’t careful. Which, for some strange reason, brought a sense of glee and joy to my face. That’s the show (and my personality) in a nutshell and with October now in full swing, you should start buying tickets to this production now, before they’re all gone.
Directed by Encore regular Matthew Brennan, this lively and engaging production of the infamous and iconic Stephen Sondheim classic is equal parts creative and revolutionary. The Encore seats about 100 patrons inside their quant black-box style theater, which literally puts the audience right in the midst of the production. Often times you’ll have ensemble members walk up to you asking a question, or, better yet, Sweeney himself offering to give you a shave (trust me, that's something you don’t want).
With such a small space to work with, The Encore’s ambition shines from the opening song, with actor movements, and the ability to suspend disbelief, and, of course, a cast that brings the house down with their on pitch harmonies. It’s hard not to love the theaters willingness to push the limits. Especially because you wouldn’t think a show of this caliber - one with difficult cues, effects, and staging - would lend itself to such an intimate setting. But after five minutes, I didn't need to be convinced.
David Moan (fresh of his Wilde award for his turn as John Wilkes Booth in “Assassins”) takes on the titular role, as the runaway barber searching for his revenge on the streets of London. With a show like this, I feel like you can only be as good as your Sweeney and Moans has the type of presence, and beautiful baritone range, required to sustain the run. Granted, he looks a little too young for the role at times, but it doesn’t negate his talent as a singer and actor. It was a choice the director made, and one that doesn’t hurt the overall project.
Moan is so crisp in his delivery of lines and songs that it transcends the experience. “My Friends” is arguably the best song in the shows catalog, and Moan absolutely crushes it. Offering a subtle balance between insanity, emotional depravity and pure madness. He is matched equally by Sarah Briggs, whose quick bio will tell us is a professional opera singer, and she brings those high ranging vocals to Mrs. Lovett, the leading lady whose “meat pie” bakery serves as a backdrop for Sweeney’s slick and diabolical agenda. Which, for those of you unfamiliar, involves the slashing of throats. Yes, we see the blood, and the way the effect is achieved, is fairly remarkable.
Speaking of metaphorical “slaying,” the whole cast kills. The troupe of supporting characters, made up of many professional and Michigan regional theater alums, help make the show come full circle. Billy Eric Robinson, pulls of just the right amount of believability portraying Toby, the young apprentice to Todd and Mrs. Lovett after an internship with the infamous con-artist Pirelli (Jamie Colburn in a scene stealing performance) doesn’t end so well (more so for Pirelli than Toby). Then we have Keith Kalinowski making heads turn as the antagonist of our story Judge Turpin, the main “baddie” if you will that is the crux of Todd’s ploy, but he’s not complete without his “muscle” known simply as The Beadle (Dan Johnson - who walks with a swagger and sophistication that makes the role so fun to watch.) And it’s all rounded out, by Sebastian Gerstner and Emily Hadick doing solid, albeit, hard work playing Anthony and Johanna. The two hopeless romantics, hoping to frolic and run away with each other, but Johanna is very much restricted by the demands of her father-figure, The Judge.
However, this show would sound bare if not for the musical direction by Tyler Driskill and his impressive orchestra companions. With as small as the stage is, you’ll truly be remitted to hear they manage to sneak a good size orchestra, barely, behind the set. I’d wager they probably didn’t have much elbow room. Another notch to commend how impressive this show is, along with the small things, that some people might not appreciate as much. Like how the ensemble uses recorder instruments as a sound effect for birds chirping. After I realized the tactic used, I kept wondering in my head the person who came up with such an idea, and it served as a reminder of why I love the creative process of producing plays, it allows ideas like that to come to fruition.
It’s not a secret that “Sweeney Todd” makes the rounds within the theatre community, and its influence on pop culture as a whole. And with the film adaptation starring Johnny Depp making waves a few years ago (I liked it, some didn’t) it was re-introduced to a whole new generation. So you could make the case for the pressure each venue has. They have to live up to some lofty expectations.
Speaking freely, this was the first time I saw “Sweeney Todd” done live, and surely it did not disappoint. I constantly found myself amazed about the intricacies of the cast, but also the lightning, which does its fair share of heavy lifting to make the show really tick. And finally, one last and huge kudos to the work ethic of the entire company and the crew, for pulling this together as one. If you’re a fan of good, quality, theater, make sure you make it out and see this show, it represents professional Michigan theater at it’s very best. Just bring something to wipe the blood off when it’s done.
IF YOU GO:
“Sweeney Todd runs through October 22nd at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200. Seating is extremely limited, so get them while you can.