By Daniel Skora
Early on, one is struck with the realization that the show you’re watching couldn’t possibly be as good as it is. This is Dexter, as in Dexter Michigan, not some theatre in New York where budgets are huge and talent as plentiful as the lights in Times Square. But “Sweeney Todd”, the current presentation of The Encore Musical Theatre, is one fantastic show and an example of what can be accomplished when hard work and dedication trump limited resources.
Encore Musical has been on an upward spiral of proficiency since it opened its doors ten seasons ago. With “Sweeney Todd”, they’ve achieved a level of theatrical maturity that even they might find difficult to surpass. Everything in the show is top notch.
Most appropriately, the bulk of the credit goes to director Matthew Brennan, who also does set design and choreography for the show (for those unfamiliar with “Sweeney Todd”, here choreography refers not to dance, but the overall movement of the cast members). For the set, he has reconfigured Encore’s seating arrangement, adding seats left and right to what would normally be part of the theatre’s performance area, and eliminating some of the seats closer to the stage. A partial thrust stage is the result, moving the show out into the audience and giving the characters additional pathways for entrances and exits. A catwalk rings the upper part of the stage, adding yet another dimension to the set.
With minimal to-do but lots of imagination, Brennan also creates convincing set pieces for the barbershop chair, the bakehouse, and the oven. Together with Tyler Chinn’s lighting design, the production provides the perfect look and feel of a show that’s passionate, thrilling, and macabre all at the same time.
But how good’s a set and staging without a talented cast to do the show justice? David Moan as Sweeney Todd and Sarah Briggs as Mrs. Lovett are incredible both in the acting department and in handling Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant and complex score. Moan’s vocals soar and he cuts a fine figure as a character that’s both sympathetic and deadly at the same time. Briggs is equally proficient in her vocals, and after dressing up numerous other Encore productions in supporting roles, has finally been recognized for her considerable acting/singing/comedic talents with a starring one. Both deserve their names right up there with the title.
Is “Sweeney Todd” opera? It’s probably best called a hybrid, with much of the dialogue sung but with a fair share of the spoken word. For those unfamiliar with the musical, a quick thumbnail: Sweeney Todd has returned home after being rescued at sea by Anthony (Sebastian Gerstner). Todd had been banished by Judge Turpin (Keith Kalinowski) in order to be able to pursue his wife. Todd now finds the judge, who is assisted in his evil ways by The Beadle (Dan Johnson), in control of his daughter Johanna (Emily Haddick). With Mrs. Lovette’s meat pies becoming less and less tasty, and revenge looming as the nicest cut available in the barber shop Todd has just reopened, something must be done with those bodies stacking up in the bakehouse. So it’s a fair thing to say that the show quickly goes from gristly to grisly with just a few swipes of the razor blade.
Others featured in the show include Emily Rogers as Beggar Woman, Billy Eric Robinson as Toby, and Jamie Colburn as Pirelli. The twelve member ensemble boasts enough talent to be able to launch a major show by itself. Others on the creative tem include costume design by Sharon Larkey Urick. The show has been transported from its typical Victorian setting (the Sweeney Todd storyline had its origins in the “penny dreadfuls” of that era) to sometime during the 1930’s. Musical direction is by Tyler Driskill. Sound is by Chris Goosman and Joshua Thorington. Prop master is Anne Donevan. Stage Manager for the production is Sera Shearer. Book is by Hugh Wheeler, based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond.
“Sweeney Todd” (full title “Sweeney Todd The Demon of Fleet Stret”) runs through October 22nd. Don’t miss it for a well-done piece of theatre of the most engaging kind. Tickets are available by calling 1.734.268.6200 or going online at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets. Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. If you’re coming west on I-96, exit at Baker Street.