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Arizona Onstage Productions

'Sweeney Todd' opening night glitchy but grand

What’s not to love about a plucky local production of a Sondheim musical featuring maniacs, mayhem and meat pies?

Don’t hesitate if you’re thinking about seeing the Arizona Onstage homegrown production of “Sweeney Todd.” For one thing, it’s an engaging, worthwhile presentation, despite its flaws. For another, it’s got a very short run with only three performances left.

 “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning 1979 musical (book by Hugh Wheeler), spawned from Victorian-era sensationalist fiction. Sondheim’s version involves mass murder, cannibalism, reversals of fortune and a fiendishly difficult vocal score.

The plot involves a wronged barber, his life capriciously ruined, who returns to London for revenge. Many are familiar with the gory 2007 movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Tucson’s “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Kevin Johnson, is big, bold and bad-ass. On opening night, it clearly had its faults, some endearing, some significant. The huge ensemble cast was both impressive and unwieldy. Set design issues impacted pacing. Performers' mics dropped out. The excellent orchestra was undercut by a few marginal vocal performances. There were no bloodletting special effects, leaving some audience members relieved and others disappointed.

People are going to be talking about Kevin Johnson’s version of 'Sweeney Todd,' and especially Kit Runge's mesmerizing performance, for a long time

But the magnificent performance of Kit Runge in the title role surely triumphed any qualms about the play’s overall execution. Runge simply killed it from the moment he appeared, lean, bald, towering and demented. His wicked intensity, bolt upright posture, flat expressions, even his eye movements, created a single-minded portrayal that was both scary and fascinating.  

Runge has a uniquely rich voice with deep resonant overtones, a sound usually associated with classic radio announcers. His commanding baritone navigated Sondheim’s torturous melody lines with surprising ease and assurance.

The quality of Runge’s performance was closely matched by Jacinda Rose Swinehart as Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime. Mrs. Lovett helps dispose of the accumulating bodies by recycling them into meat pies which become the rage of London. Swinehart gave Mrs. Lovett a casual craziness that matched Runge’s maniacal focus. More importantly, her vocal performance was equally outstanding, soaring along with Runge in their numerous duets.

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Other performances reached a high level, but remained a notch below the exuberant efforts of the two leads. Of special note were Brian Levario as Tobias Ragg, Jenny Beauregard as Johanna, Jim Klingenfus as Judge Turpin and Dennis Tamblyn as Senor Pirelli.

The approximately 35-member ensemble, ranging from recent high school grads to experienced, professional troupers, gave a less coherent performance. Sondheim’s score is a minefield of dissonant harmonies, awkward intervals, and maddeningly stuttered phrases. Though not perfect, they generally did well enough, especially for a community presentation (more on that later). Their movement seemed jumbled in several scenes, and when dancing, their choreography rudimentary by necessity. Still, the sheer volume of people on stage gave the production a degree of spectacle that transcended individual levels of talent and training.

Other elements of note in the production include the thoughtful lighting design by Erik Michael, period costume design by Shana Nunez and the tight, versatile little orchestra led by music director Khris Dodge.

A major problem throughout the evening was set design. The rear of the stage was framed by a curved, double arch stairway with a broad platform. The eleven-piece orchestra was tucked nicely underneath with a small curtain to obscure the conductor’s gestures. The problem was the massive structure on wheels whose top served as Sweeney’s stark second story barber shop and whose various sides were Mrs. Lovett’s shop, her living room, and her basement baking area. The wagon rotated to the appropriate sides easily enough. But for all other scenes, it had to be wheeled completely off-stage, and then returned, taking considerable effort and time. This interrupted the brisk pacing numerous times. Several transitions were so slow that some audience members at least thought about texting.

The audience itself was both younger and more casual than typical Arizona Theatre Company offerings at the Temple for Music and Art. The younger audience seemed to respond more readily to the performance, cheering Runge and Swinehart heartily. They also seemed more forgiving of gaffes, like the off-key trio reprise of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” in Act I.

They even applauded the special barber’s chair in which victims were dispatched, when it turned into a slide to whisk the corpses away in a bit of morbid slapstick.

Some older audience members seemed less appreciative of the dark, macabre work and less forgiving for the lack of final polish that a national touring company might have delivered. This is a local production and Arizona Onstage is to be congratulated for even attempting such an audacious project, much less pulling it off so well. There was a sense of hometown pride in the production. Johnson has taken many risks in his direction. Some pay-off fabulously and none fail ruinously.

While not to the level of a national company, Arizona Onstage has mounted a credible and often exciting production of an extremely ambitious and devilishly difficult work. People are going to be talking about Kevin Johnson’s version of “Sweeney Todd,” and especially Kit Runge’s mesmerizing performance, for a long time.

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1 comment on this story

Aug 10, 2011, 6:10 am
-0 +1

Excellent review from the best reviewer in the city, and the Tucson Sentinel has you…along with the wine glass stain (BRILLIANT! And this would be one of the few reasons to miss print media, IMO.)

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courtesy Arizona Onstage Productions

If you go

  • “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” presented by Arizona Onstage Productions through August 14 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
  • Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3:00 pm Sunday
  • Tickets are $37.50 general admission (no reserved seating), $32.50 for 55+ seniors and $27.50 for students/teachers.  For information and tickets, call 882-6674 or visit www.arizonaonstage.org.