By Bill Hirschman
One definition of classic theater is a piece that not only remains popular or relevant through time, but which can be endlessly reinterpreted or restaged without losing any of its brilliance, Shakespeare’s work being the most obvious example.
Zoetic Stage’s latest entry working its way through the Stephen Sondheim canon underscores how Sweeney Todd qualifies.
It has been re-mounted hundreds of times, including a “school edition.” The original Hal Prince production in 1979 emphasized the social injustice of a corrupt world. John Doyle’s even darker minimalist take in 2005 provided a vicarious exorcising pleasure of pushback for the audience. Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 2017 steampunk vibe made the themes resonate with the present day. Some productions are funnier. Some more Grand Guignol.
But Zoetic’s always insightful director Stuart Meltzer, following his instincts with Sondheim, once again triumphs with a simple formula: trust the material, hire the best talents you can find and just tell the story – usually with a quietly stylistic staging that highlights what theater can bring to an audience that no other medium can. Some people might wish for a more obvious thematic spin with a tiny bit more sizzle, but this approach consistently works because of Zoetic’s imagination.
For instance, with only eight performers (the Beggar Woman doubles as Pirelli), crowd scenes such as the shaving contest and the re-opening of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop are played interactively through the fourth wall straight to the audience sitting on three sides of the thrust stage. Actors not central to the scene camp out on the aisles of the risers to sing the chorus’ parts.
As usual, Meltzer and the cast come up with brilliant little bits of business that flash by. When Sweeney is singing his love song to his weapons of death, he returns to where Mrs. Lovett is holding out the box of razors. When he grabs another razor, his hand and hers graze each other as he sings to the silver razor “You grow warm in my hand.” She clutches his hand briefly as she blindly misinterprets his adoration of the razor as a signal that he is offering her the loving relationship she dreams of.
Start by praising with the flawless cast, including some recent college grads and a current New World student. But Aloysius Gigl’s Sweeney and Jeni Hacker’s Mrs. Lovett bring unique vibes that are difficult to recapture in words.
Gigl, who won a Carbonell Award playing Javert in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Les Misérables, delivers a Sweeney living deeply inside himself and interacting with others only as it serves his purpose. With piercing blue eyes, gingery blond hair, Satanic looking beard and sleeves rolled up his muscular arms, the strapping Gigl looks like a blacksmith in his apron (well, actually a butcher). His strong expressive voice has a little less heft and timbre than some other Sweeneys, but it can rise to volcanic heights when necessary. He may not be the most magnetic Sweeney ever (thinking of Cariou, Cerveris et. al.) but he easily commands and holds the audience’ attention for the entire evening as someone whose soul has curdled.
Under a towering wig of Lucy Ricardo red hair, Jeni Hacker, equally capable of humor and pathos, won a Carbonell delivering one of the best Foscas we ever saw in Zoetic’s Passion and is nominated this spring as the mother in Zoetic’s Fun Home. Once again here, she demonstrates a musical skill that rivals any of her contemporaries. But it is deftly hidden under a memorable characterization of a Mrs. Lovett whose mobile face can communicate droll humor and cold practicality within seconds of each other. Her Nellie isn’t demented, but simply someone whose life has taught that pragmatism is survival. It’s not a matter of her thinking what she is doing might be wrong or even right; morality simply is not in the equation or in her vocabulary. Watch her face as she leads Toby to slaughter.
Her chemistry with Gigl on the Act 1 closer, “A Little Priest,” is a highlight of the evening.
The rest of the cast: Shannon Nicole Booth, a recent UM grad and former member of Zoetic’s Young Artist’s program, invested Johanna with a silvery soprano on “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Henry Gainza, a local stalwart who went to New York, makes for a delightfully sycophantic Beadle Bamford, especially in his silly “Parlor Song.” Veteran Terry Hardcastle, who has worked virtually everywhere, brings a perfect sonorous baritone to the dapper Judge. Kimberly Doreen Burns, who scored as Dot in Zoetic’s Sunday in the Park With George, handles double duty as the manic depressive Beggar Woman in the lower parts of her register and then as the preening Pirelli with an almost operatically high soprano. Kevin Veloz, a New World student and part of the Zoetic Young Artists program, is fine throughout as Toby, but really scores with the ardent entreaty “Not While I’m Around.” Nate Promkul, a New World grad, has a gorgeous voice and exudes a young man’s enthusiasm as Anthony.
Paul Tine, who has been working with Slow Burn Theatre Company all season, expertly guides the cast as musical director, a heightened chore all around since they must vocally fill in for what was originally a cast of 27. Tine, Meltzer, the sound crew and the cast deserve especial praise for the enunciation of Sondheim’s genius-level lyrics. This critic is a certified Sondhead and I heard lyrics I had never noticed before, notably in the many numbers in which multiple people are simultaneously singing different words.
Tine playing keyboard leads a superb live off-stage band with amazingly effective orchestrations for such a small group: Elena Alamilla, cello; Liubov Ohrimenco, violin; Peter Francis, trumpet; Ryan Hecker, percussion; Rick Kissinger, clarinet, and I could swear I heard an accordion, although that may have been the electronic keyboard.
It’s downright unfair that designers end up at the bottom of reviews for praise, especially for this production, from Marina Pareja’s character-revealing costumes to Jodi Dellaventura’s props. Natalie Taveras creates a fascinating open stage featuring a back wall of empty chairs rising to the ceiling (perhaps representing Sweeney’s multitude of victims?) and a raised playing area featuring two concentric turntables insightfully employed by Meltzer.
But saving the best for last, Becky Montero. There are some superb lighting designers in this region like Paul Black, Tom Shorrock, Jeff Quinn, many others. But Ms. Montero is consistently one of the best we’ve seen in regional theater. She paints with light, producing ever-changing tableaux that reflect morphing moods and locations. Frequently on this show, on an otherwise dark set, she will shine bright white light from above on a character in the throes of emotion as if they are praying to a God if He exists, or she will shoot the sole light from below like when you shine a flashlight on your face to scare someone. Both put an actor’s face in simultaneous light and darkness emphasizing the battling duality of the character.
Zoetic’s Sweeney is a slashing good way for the company to close its eighth full season.
Sweeney Todd from Zoetic Stage as part of the Theater Up Close series performs through April 7 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $55. Running time is 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission. (305) 949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.