Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sweeney Todd by Musical Theatre Southwest

There are very few times that Alissa the Reviewer allows herself to fall into superlatives or cliches. It's bad journalism, right? Not this time. Buckle up... it's Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" playing at Musical Theatre Southwest's Black Box performance space, and it (literally) gave me chills, it (literally) is full of surprises for the audience and it (literally) is one of the best shows I've had the pleasure to see this year.

Originally a cautionary tale, director Hal Simons' vision of the macabre musical is entirely different than any previous staging you will ever see, and that's all I will say about that because "Sweeney wouldn't want [me] to give it away." Yet, from the opening scene the audience is sucked into this dark tale (I nearly jumped out of my skin at Sweeney's first entrance) and ready to meet the many disturbed characters that parade about Victorian London.

Making his MTS debut, TJ Bowlin plays the dark and disturbed lead character with a sense of emotional conviction that some actors might find daunting. At times he's almost kind, at others he's bloodthirsty and maniacal, and Bowlin plays Todd's twists and turns adeptly. Vocally and dramatically challenging, Bowlin loses himself inside Sweeney, all while keeping the pace of the show active but never hurried.

Supporting him along his path of vengeance is Mrs. Lovett, played by Kari Reese, the only character who knows Sweeney's true identity. Reese expertly manages to find all the shades that Lovett's character can provide -- she's funny, she's sexy, she's nurturing and, of course, she's shockingly amoral in her business ventures. With a strong sense of comic timing, and a wicked good accent, Reese's Lovett is ruthless and her conniving ways match perfectly with Todd's need to punish those who've wronged him; the chemistry between the two actors drives the tale.

Musical director Lina Ramos' work cannot be overlooked -- Sondheim's music is complex, heavy with operatic influences, and requires a cast of strong voices who can sing the score's many discordant chords pitch perfectly. At times, I would close my eyes (but only for a second, lest I miss something!) just to hear all of the levels in this music and the vocal ability of the entire cast. This is certainly a show that plays well in the tight confines of MTS' Black Box space. The sound of these actors' voices are so close, they reverberate inside you. It's dissonant and darkly melodic, and thank the good gods the audience gets to hear it all with real live musicians (which is beginning to become a rare treat for musical theatre goers in our town).

The young lovers Johanna (Emily Melville) and Anthony Hope (Nate Warren) are the foils to Lovett and Todd, and Melville's coloratura voice is given a chance to shine in her solo "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." Nate Warren, also making his MTS debut, has a liquid yet strong tenor voice that was made for Anthony. His ability to hold his own is tested in duets and quartets, but allowed to shine through in his solo "Johanna." Another strong tenor in this show was Derrick Medrano, playing Tobias Ragg. With many character transformations to navigate, Medrano's voice is given full range in his duet with Mrs. Lovett, "Nothing's Gonna Harm You."

Many more strong characters help tell this tale, Brian Clifton's Beadle Bamford was given a new twist with Clifton's natural comedic strengths glimmering through, and as the moralizing Judge Turpin, played by Josh Griffin, we find a fearless actor who rises to the challenge of Simons' directorial choices in "Mea Culpa," pushing the audience's boundaries. Bryan Daniels as Signor Pirelli brings the comic relief necessary to lighten the mood, and make sure the audience remembers to smile in this show too.

Certain to sell out, best buy your tickets online at or call 505-265-9119, and get to the theatre early to get a good seat... in fact, sit in the front row if you dare. Like a roller coaster, this is a scary, funny, thrilling ride that leaves you exhilarated and ready to get back in line to do it again! 

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