Sweeney Todd at Spotlighters

SWEENEY TODD Scares Up Audiences at the Spotlighters
By Ben Ryland

The Audrey Herman’s Spotlighters Theatre has produced an intensely atmospheric
production of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of
Fleet Street. Yes, it is the musical about cannibalism- but get over it. This is the finest musical of the 1970’s in scope and execution with a wonderfully terrifying yet witty libretto by Hugh Wheeler.

I found the original Broadway premiere by Hal Prince over-produced minimalizing the actors and the story. As elaborate but wonderful as it was in the then Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin housing WICKED), I have always preferred the small more intimate productions. In this regard the Spotlighters have outdone themselves again under the producing wizardry of Fuzz Roark.

Musical Director Michael Tan has accomplished the near impossible: making the rich, full score sound rich and full with just 3 musicians. Plus the fact that the show is almost entirely sung (often revived by opera companies and concert versions) the band gets quite a workout.

Director Alexander D. Carey is used to mammoth undertakings having directed last seasons- Angels in America: Perestroika. He has a cast of newcomers, Spotlighters regulars and even an opera student in his Sweeney cast.

Carlos del Valle portrays Todd the barber driven to become a monster; an actor who has never sung in a musical previously. He was a bit tentative and swallowing his lyrics early on opening night but relaxed into the well-rehearsed role quickly becoming fully chest- voiced in his singing. His strong performance both vocally and ‘facially’ struck terror into the ‘very close to the stage’ audience. Veteran Andrea Bush as his accomplice (and the one truly mad character in the show) had Mrs. Lovett’s vulnerability perfect and you truly felt her longing for a normal life within the disgusting slums of London.

Other standouts included David Gregory as Anthony (and movement choreographer), Kristen Zwobot as the Beadle, Troy Hopper as the horny judge, Drew Gaver with his sweet voice as Tobias and Jeffery Coleman’s beautiful operatic voice as Pirelli.

FUZZ Roark and Crystal Soveroski have created an atmosphere of claustrophobic beauty in their realized set for this production. With her paint and styrofoam creation it puts those big budget venues with their minimalistic sets to shame. It alone may be worth the price of admission. If you have never seen an intimate chamber-style production of Sweeney Todd, which reveals all of its creative and performance glories, this is the one to see.

Spotlighters Theatre – 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore
Tickets: http://www.spotlighters.org
Now until April 19th (many performances are already sold-out)
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THE SPITFIRE GRILL
The beautifully restored Fulton Theatre has been presenting equity shows for a while gaining a reputation in the Lancaster area for outstanding productions at affordable prices. This summer they will stage, Les Miserables on their wonderful stage but currently they are offering a rarely produced musical- The Spitfire Grill, based on the 1980’s film.

The plot follows Percy Talbot, a woman just released from prison to the parole system stewardship of the sheriff of Glead, Wisconsin. He gets her a job at the Spitfire Grill run by Hanna, a bitter elderly woman impossible to deal with. The town is dying a slow death after the closing of the quarry but not all is what it seems.

Hanna lost a son in Vietnam and recently her husband, becoming bitter and mean. The characters are introduced in a breakfast expository sequence abound with gossip.
When Hanna breaks her leg she needs Percy along with her daughter in-law Shelby to run the grill and her rough exterior begins to soften. Her nephew, Caleb has had the grill up for sale per her request for a while with no takers. When Percy suggests a national raffle to get someone to take over the business the three women put the plan quietly into action. Each entry must enclose a letter stating why they want the grill and a $100.00 bill.

Advertising the town and surroundings as being ablaze with “colors of paradise” mail bags of entries arrive full of heartbreaking stories in the requests to move to Glead and take over the business. They are “hope in a mail bag.”

The second act brings the heartbreak of Hanna’s family out of the shadows including Caleb being jealous of his wife Shelby’s part in the raffle. All is precipitated by the appearance of a long lost relative opening old wounds. But Percy becomes fulfilled and has her own epiphany at the discoveries.

The Spitfire Grill is almost entirely sung with music, lyrics and book by James Valcq and Fred Alley. This is their first show I have seen but I hope it’s not the last. The songs move the narrative along with a melodic, rich style of musicals in the 80’s and 90’s. The older audience at the matinee I attended loved it as did I.

It is difficult to single out performances in this fine singing and acting ensemble. The beautiful production transports the audience into this world for a few hours that you will remember for years.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL – The Fulton Theatre, Prince Street, Lancaster
Now through March 29th
Tickets and more information on the theatre- http://www.thefulton.org.

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