Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Sweeney Todd' formidable in Marinette

Theatre on the Bay

MARINETTE, Wis. - In baseball, the brushback pitch is wicked – jolting the batter to attention and serving as a warning.

In Theatre on the Bay’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the company does much the same. Wearing ghoulish make-up and motley garb, the group stands virtually toe-to-toe with the audience in the front row and serves notice that a nasty, bloody tale is about to unfold. In the story, some folks will get the closest shave they will ever get.

The sequence is a brushback pitch, theatrical style.

Its electricity sets the tone for an ambitious production by the University of Wisconsin-Marinette campus and community company to launch its 51st season, a far-reaching series called “The Season of Intrigue.”

With demanding music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “Sweeney Todd” not only has a degree of difficulty, its subject matter is horror-story gross: Customers of the mad barber end up in meat pies that are popular. In a way, the show is artistic shock-voyeurism.

Among the players, James Porras II is devilishly good as his Sweeney Todd roars around, his razor at the ready to strike vengeance. So is Lisa Atkinson LeBoeuf as the “restaurateur” who assists and encourages Sweeney Todd’s quest.

Sweeney Todd has returned to London after 20 years in prison in Australia. He intends revenge on the judge who raped his wife and sent him away on a trumped-up charge. Sweeney Todd is unaware of the fate of his wife and baby daughter, Johanna. The daughter, now a young woman, is the ward of the judge. The judge thinks he’s the perfect material to marry her; this is a juicy and sometimes icky yarn. The stage is set for viciousness and violence.

True to Sondheim’s intricate ways, dialogue sometimes leads to rhythmic patterns of speech that lead to song. Some songs include four people singing individual lines. Much of the singing is of the street people in a haunting overview of action that is taking place. There’s nary a ditty anywhere; this is sophisticated stuff.

No voice amplification is used. Herbert L. Williams Theatre is of the size that the natural voice carries well enough. Also, the basic thrust stage is extended to bring the action closer to the audience.

James Porras II grabs the leading role. He’s a big guy with a big voice, and he throws himself into Sweeney Todd’s steroid-like rages. It’s a scary role, scarily played.

Lisa Atkinson LeBoeuf is a force, too. Her character, Mrs. Lovett, is sweet smarm. People are puppets on strings as Mrs. Lovett does whatever it takes to get by. Nasty lady.

Also grabbing his character is Chase Grabowski as young Tobias Ragg, a lackey caught up in situations beyond his control who ends up knowing too much. Grabowski has a brightness to his voice.

Among other strong key players are Anthony LaMalfa as a sailor who befriends Sweeney Todd (boy, is he a bad judge of character) and is smitten by Johanna; John Thornberry as Judge Turpin, conniver extraordinaire; Laker Anne Thrasher as Johanna, caught in a maelstrom; Tristan Schuh as Beadle Bamford, the judge’s gofer mouthpiece; Brittany Welch (co-music director with Porras) as the mysterious Beggar Woman; and Johanna Zuehls as the charlatan peddler Adolfo Pirelli.

The ensemble is on the mark, coming in as a whole or by individual in tricky sequences of timing as the story weaves on, injustice by injustice and then body by body.

The production doesn’t have heavy duty special effects for sequences in which Sweeney Todd’s victims are delivered to the pie-making place (doesn’t that sound awful?) but the impressionistic set design by John Thornberry (director, performer, etc.) captures the creepy aura of London back when it was truly grubby.

It takes a certain daring to take on “Sweeney Todd.” But Theatre on the Bay has a history (respect in the community) and current artistic flint (artistic director Rebecca Stone Thornberry) to pull it off in muscular ways.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Sondheim; book – Hugh Wheeler, adapted from a story by Christopher Bond; direction, scenic design and sound design – John Thornberry; assistant director – James Porras II; musical direction – James Porras II, Brittany Welch; lighting design – Chris Weber; costume design – Annalisa Mines; wigs provided by Vicki Gephardt; production stage management – Marie Arnold, Jared Thomson; properties, producer and artistic director – Rebecca Stone Thornberry

Cast: Sweeney Todd – James Porras II; Nellie Lovett – Lisa Atkinson LeBoeuf; Anthony Hope – Anthony LaMalfa; Johanna – Laker Anne Thrasher; Tobias Ragg – Chase Grabowski; Judge Turpin – John Thornberry; Beadle Bamford – Tristan Shuh; Beggar Woman – Brittany Welch; Adolfo Pirelli – Johanna Zuehls; Jonas Fogg – Gary Pansch; Birdseller – Wesley Beyer; Ensemble – Jackie Baxter, Carly Pamela Beyer, Wesley Beyer, Ashley Burley, Brandon Byng, McKenna Carvenough, Alyssa Carviou, Autumn Clement, Michaela Kaiser, Leah LaMalfa, Lydia LeBeouf, Karah Nelson, Gary Pansch, Lily Pomplun, Kenan Pulver

Running time: Two hours, 55 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 21 and 22 and 2 p.m. July 23

Info: marinette.uwc.edu/theatre

***

Musical selections (recorded music)

Prologue

“Prelude” – Instrumental

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd” – Company

Act I

“No Place Like London” – Anthony, Todd, Beggar Woman

“The Barber and His Wife” – Todd

“The Worst Pies in London” – Mrs. Lovett

“My Friends” – Todd and Mrs. Lovett

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Lift Your Razor High, Sweeney” – Ensemble

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird” – Johanna

“Ah, Miss” – Anthony, Johanna, Beggar Woman

“Johanna” – Anthony

“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” – Tobias, Todd, Mrs. Lovett, Ensemble

“The Contest” – Pirelli

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Sweeney Pondered and Sweeney Planned” – Ensemble

“Wait” – Mrs. Lovett

“Pirelli’s Death” – Pirelli

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: His Hands Were Quick, His Fingers Strong” – Ensemble

“Kiss Me” – Johanna, Anthony

“Ladies in their Sensitivities” – Beadle

“Kiss Me” (Part II) – Johanna, Anthony, Beadle, Judge Turpin

“Pretty Women” – Todd and Judge Turpin

“Epiphany” – Todd

“A Little Priest” – Mrs. Lovett and Todd

Act II

“God, That’s Good!” – Tobias, Mrs. Lovett, Todd, and Ensemble

“Johanna” (Quartet) – Anthony, Todd, Beggar Woman, Johanna

“By the Sea” – Mrs. Lovett

“Wigmaker Sequence” – Todd and Anthony

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Sweeny’d Waited Too Long Before” – Ensemble

“The Letter” – Todd and Ensemble

“Not While I’m Around” – Tobias and Mrs. Lovett

“Parlor Songs” – Beadle Mrs. Lovett, Tobias

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: The Engine Roared, The Motor Hissed” – Ensemble

“City on Fire” / “Searching” – Lunatics, Johanna, and Beggar Woman / Mrs. Lovett and Todd

“Ah, Miss” (Reprise) – Anthony and Johanna

“Lullaby” – Beggar Woman

“Pretty Women” (Reprise) – Todd and Judge Turpin

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Lift Your Razor High, Sweeney” – Ensemble

“Final Scene” – Mrs. Lovett and Todd

Epilogue

“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd” – Company

***

NEXT: “The War of the Worlds,” Oct. 28

THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.

THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay with a lively and engaging personality. He loved to act, but mostly he loved to direct. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her. Today, painting is a primary passion.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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