BY SANDY STAGGS
Revenge is a dish best served hot – and in a meat pie with a walloping dollop of dramatic exuberance and musicality in Asheville Community Theatre’s piping hot 71st season opener “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Few community theatres would – or should – dare tackle “Sweeney Todd” unless they have the talent and stomach to showcase Stephen Sondheim’s brooding operatic score. Fortuitously, ACT’s Demon Barber transcends all expectations.
As an ideal prelude to Halloween, and with a much darker, didactic tone than his sensational haunted holiday staging last year of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” Director Jerry Crouch and company present a mesmerizing and technically-enthralling telling of the maligned barber Benjamin Barker (retired opera singer Steve Parkin) who, after 15 years of imprisonment on a TRUMPED-up charge, assumes a new identity as Todd to assuage his seething enmity for Judge Turpin (Doug Hauschild) – the corrupt politician who sent Barker to prison and, along with his servant accomplice Beadle (Zacary Landolt), raped his wife Lucy.
Todd re-opens his barber parlor, sharpens his plan of vengeance (and sterling silver razor) and shacks up with widowed landlady and pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Christy Montesdeoca). Together they plot to lure the judge, as well as other individuals that will never be missed, to slit their throats and ground their bodies into delectable meat pies to serve a hungry London public.
As Todd and Lovett, Parkin and Montesdeoca are fantastic. Parkin is striking in his ironclad pensive reflection and convinces us with sullen, spine-tingling surety. His baritone/bass voice is bountifully suited for the operatic nature of Sondheim’s compositions like “Epiphany.” And he proves he is an accomplished and pitch-perfect whistler indeed in “Pretty Women.”
But he is most brilliant with his co-star in the dramatic parlando of “A Little Priest” at the top of Act One as the duo pontificates in grotesque patter lyrics the various flavors of their “secret ingredient” according to their victim’s vocation.
Montesdeoca, who I last saw in a Snow White costume in Attic Salt Theatre Company’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” next door at 35 Below, is unrecognizable in her fiery-red wigs and Cockney accent. She effortlessly brandishes lunacy when she rolls out her dough and in “By the Sea,” a sad, tainted love.
In a parallel and requited romance, the young handsome sailor Anthony, Maximilian Koger (fresh from his role as the uptight son in “La Cage Aux Folles”) displays a refined timbre voice in “Johanna” and “Kiss Me” as he courts Todd’s now-grown daughter Johanna (the gloriously delightful Lora Ristau), who has been under Turpin’s tutelage since infancy.
As the dissembling Italian Barber Adolfo Pirelli, Bradshaw Call, who was stupendous as the lead in “La Cage Aux Folles,” relishes in his role as a dandy with the skill of a traveling carnival barker and is blessed with the most colorful, exotic costumes in the cast.
And his simple-minded assistant (and later Mrs. Lovett’s apprentice) Tobias Ragg, Corey Link blossoms in the second act culminating in a tremendous “Not While I’m Around” with comforting lines such as “Nothing’s gonna harm you.”
In the small but crucial role of the senile Beggar Woman, Leslie Lang is the epitome of dedication and performs throughout in an extreme “anti-posture,” almost forming a perfect right angle, and hissing incessantly. Granted, it’s difficult to understand some of her dialogue, but chalk it up to her character’s presumed madness. Rounding out the cast is Michael Crosa as Jonas Fogg, the doctor at the asylum.
“Sweeney Todd” is not for the feign of heart, but Crouch keeps the action at a steady dramatic pulse with the murders presented in a gentlemanly fashion: the graphic elements are tastefully-rendered without a messy clean-up. Though an actual gunshot sound cue would add a dash of adrenalin for the audience as would, in another scene, a “real” impassioned slap across the face instead of just empty air a good foot from its target.
Lenora Thom returns as Music Director and orchestra conductor and secures outstanding vocals from all, including the spirited male and female choruses in the eponymous leitmotif “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”
Scenic Designer Jill Summers has transformed the theatre into a gritty two -story Victorian street with a turntable building at its core. Perched on top is the Infamous reclining barber chair that deposits the victims down the the chute before being prepared and baked in the walk-in oven.
Also tantamount in “Sweeney Todd” is Rob Bowen’s oft-ominous lighting and Ida’s magnificent and finely-crafted costumes for both the peasants and the power-class (there are 1,000 pieces overall in this production); properties by Jean Fullbright, and Hair and Make-up by Hallie Moore. Sound engineer is Ron Whittemore and Richard Holcomb is Stage Manager.
“Sweeney Todd” continues through Oct. 30 at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 East Walnut St. in Asheville. Call (828) 254-1320 or visit www.ashevilletheatre.org.