A few years ago, when my editors first sent me down to The Heights to review a production at the nearby Masquerade Theatre, I was not sure what to expect as I approached the small building that houses this fast-growing company. Now, after a couple of seasons, I have grown to expect top-notch performances there. At the recent opening night of “Sweeney Todd,” I was not disappointed.
Those readers who are fans of Stephen Sondheim’s music, and even those theatergoers who just enjoy offbeat theater with an experimental edge, should hurry on down to the Masquerade’s well-crafted new production of Sondheim’s dark and brooding musical black comedy. Skillfully directed by Masquerade founder, Phillip Duggins, the production features a creative, rolling set and scenic designs from Russell Freeman and Amy Ross, respectively. Coupled with the wonderful costume designs of Stephanie Bradow (with Assistant, Bridget Styles), and the hauntingly beautifully lighting of Mr. Duggins, the production is a visually stunning and gritty look at the world of Victorian London. Enough cannot be said about the choral excellence of the ensemble that anchors the piece and serves as a kind of singing “narrator” to guide us on this very strange journey. “How strange?” you ask. Suffice it to say that Sweeney Todd earns the play’s subtitle of “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” He could give Dr. Hannibal Lecter lessons in how to make meat pies of suspicious composition. This one is not for the kiddies!
The clever, bi-level staging conserves needed space (fewer than 100 seats) and allows for balcony placement, above the stage, of the fine chamber orchestra (Andy Dixon, Kimberly Robinson, Curry Duffy, Doug Herrington). Cast make-up was also exceptionally well done, though no Make-up Designer was credited in the program. Duggins also choreographed the mystical movements of the ensemble, sometimes with touches of lantern light that added to the eerie mystery of the piece.
Luther Chakurian plays Todd with sinister skill. He sings well, broods beautifully, and has quite a knack with a razor! Co-starring opposite him (in the role of Nellie Lovett, originated by Angela Lansbury on Broadway) is the lovely, talented, and very comedic, Rebekah Dahl. She has a fine voice and may have more funny faces than Carol Burnett. She pairs well with talented young Logan Kesler who plays Toby. They do a lovely duet of one of the show’s more familiar tunes, “Not While I’m around,” and with boyish enthusiasm he really plays things for laughs in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” Michael Ross as Anthony, and Katherine Randolph as Johanna, are both sweet, and in good voice, as the young lovers ever thwarted by her evil guardian, Judge Turpin (Rich Guardiola). And speaking of good voices, Guardiola’s is rich, deep and theatrical. He uses it well in the fine “Pretty Women” duet with Mr. Chakurian. Allison Sumrall punctuates the evening’s proceedings nicely as the singing Beggar Woman.
In his role as the flamboyant con artist, Pirelli, Terry Jones would give Liberace a run for his money, outlandish cape and all. Russell Freeman adds another touch of evil as the treacherous Beadle. Jamie Mills as Lucy and Chad Knesek as Mr. Fogg round out the fine cast. Throughout the performance, the rotating cube of a set cleverly allows four scenes to be played on its sides, and a fifth on its top. The silhouetted scene in the Asylum is visually terrifying and brilliantly staged. But often, the superb choral ensemble is the star of the show, and lifts the production to dazzling heights in compelling numbers like “Fogg’s Asylum” and “The Letter.” The intense frenzy and wild gaze of the full company finale will burn in your memory. You may not be humming the show’s tunes when you leave the theater; but you will remember its images.
The Masquerade Theatre is located at 1537 N. Shepherd in The Heights. (Moments from the Durham/N. Shepherd exit of loop 610) Beer, wine and snacks are available at performances.
“Sweeney Todd” runs from July 14th through August 3rd with performances Thursdays through Mondays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3p.m. For reservations and information call 713-861-7045.
(The Courier 7.14.02)