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REVIEW: “Sweeney Todd” is a surprising visit to Fleet Street

REVIEW: “Sweeney Todd” is a surprising visit to Fleet Street

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Lea Salonga’s astounding transformation as Mrs. Lovett make this Bobby Garcia-directed retelling not one to miss.

It’s not the Sweeney Todd you’re expecting. It’s not 19th century petticoats and corsets and three piece suits. There’s no gothic-noir / macabre vibe going on. There isn’t even the Victorian era, nor a version of London you’ll easily recognize; what’s on stage is a derelict parking lot lined with remnants of old cars against an abandoned Fogg’s Asylum. It’s a Sweeney Todd out of time that director Bobby Garcia has offered, an almost punkish take on a musical you think you know. 

Originally a character of Victorian urban legend, Sweeney Todd is about a barber who returns to London after having been removed by a corrupt judge and forced to leave his wife and child. He ends up in a pie shop where the owner, Mrs. Lovett, recounts what had become of his family. Given back his prized razors, he vows to take revenge on the judge by giving him the ‘closest shave he has ever known’. 

From the moment you take your seat, the stage is startling to behold (David Gallo is set designer), and the discordant feel of it doesn’t really go away. Of course, why can’t Sweeney Todd be staged with radical anachronism? The musical itself is a retelling, with the chorus inviting us to ‘attend’ the legend of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Garcia seemed to have chosen a group of vagabonds to tell this tale. 

There’s something quite bold about committing to this parking lot motif. Even Aaron Porter’s lighting design seemed to follow suit with spotlights as though headlights illuminating a character or scene. Characters enter driving—actually driving—cars downstage, nearly the entirety of the show happen on, or against, or around, an old Chevy truck. Characters are dressed in vagrant-chic as though they were from the 80s, instead of the 1800’s (Rajo Laurel is costume designer). If it doesn’t add anything to its material, it’s at least something new and utterly unexpected to look at.

Photo Credit: Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group

The price paid for this cool, stylized Todd, was its ghoulishness. Somehow, this Stephen Sondheim classic (with the book by Hugh Wheeler) about a murderous barber and his cannibalistic pie-making partner is even less of a thriller and more the surreal comedy. The performances, too, seem to be at their strongest when playing up the innate humor of the piece. The show’s most riotous numbers like “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, “A Little Priest”, and “God, that’s Good!” remain this iteration’s most memorable moments. Even the way Todd’s victims rolled off their barber’s chair towards their destiny got audiences giggling.

Uneven performances also contributed to which scenes or subplots have the most impact. Lea Salonga crafts a playful, almost exceedingly charismatic Mrs. Lovett. Her Cockney is flaw-free, her singing is impeccable, but what’s incredible is how she disappears into the role. It’s astonishing how she has never sounded like how she does in this role, transforming into a Mrs. Lovett that knows how to handle Todd. Her one-sided romance with Todd, her ingenuity as a business owner, her maternal fondness for the young boy Toby, and the humor that goes with songs like “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea” becomes the story’s most notable arcs. 

In contrast, Jett Pangan who plays the eponymous Sweeney Todd is a lot less demonic in this. Despondent and less brash, dispassionately turning from scorned man seeking revenge to serial murderer. Pangan comes alive and gives us a peek of Todd’s true madness only in “Epiphany”, where he ironically sings about how everyone deserves to die. This comparably (to Lovett) less indelible Todd ripples into the impact Judge Turpin’s character has on the proceedings, of which there is none. He may have abducted Todd’s daughter, but barring a ridiculous moment of fatherly care that immediately shifts into a distasteful proposal, Andrew Fernando’s Turpin might as well be one of the nameless townspeople who end up on Todd’s chair.

Gerald Santos as Anthony also lacked the magnetism that would make you want to root for his character, or even to take much notice. His English accent was also jarringly uneven compared with the rest of the cast. Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, usually an unforgettable scene-stealer, seems almost under utilized as Johanna, confined by her underwritten character just as Johanna has been treated like a caged bird. It’s Arman Ferrer as the Beadle that surprises, cutting a strapping figure that’s less of a one-note henchman and more the spirited man about town with a penchant for parlour songs.

Nyoy Volante as Adolfo Pirelli | Photo Credit: Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group

Luigi Quesada also impresses as the zippy Tobias, injecting energy into the show’s mildly lethargic beginning as he introduced Pirelli, and later, with a great rendition of “Not While I’m Around”. Nyoy Volante, consistently showing that he is one of local theater’s best character actors, is a crowd favorite as Adolfo Pirelli and showed stunning shift from affected Italian accent to Scottish with ease. The only thing lamentable about his work here, is that he isn’t on stage long enough.

Tickets: Php 1,500.00 - Php 5,000.00
Show Dates: Oct 11 ’19, Oct 12 ’19, Oct 13 ’19, Oct 17 ’19, Oct 18 ’19, Oct 19 ’19, Oct 20 ’19, Oct 24 ’19, Oct 25 ’19, Oct 26 ’19, Oct 27 ’19
Venue: The Theatre at Solaire, Entertainment City, 1 Aseana Ave, Parañaque
Running Time: approx 3 hours (w/ 20-minute intermission)
Credits: Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), Hugh Wheeler (book), Bobby Garcia (director), Gerard Salonga (musical director), Cecile Martinez (musical staging), David Gallo (set design), Aaron Porter (lighting design), Justin Stasiw (Sound Design), Rajo Laurel (costume design), Leslie Espinosa (hair and makeup design)
Cast: Jett Pangan, Lea Salonga, Nyoy Volante, Gerald Santos, Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, Andrew Fernando, Luigi Quesada, Arman Ferrer, Ima Castro, Dean Rosen, Steven Conde, Kevin Guiman, Jep Go, Christine Flores, Sarah Facuri, Emeline Celis Guinid
Company: Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
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