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UE dishes up delectable musical cuisine ; Theater review [Evansville Courier & Press (IN)]

November 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Some call revenge a dish best served cold, but hot, smoky and saucy works, too, especially if you're making meat pies and musical theater. The University of Evansville serves up both in its production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's murderous musical, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

A quarter century after UE Theatre last presented it, director R. Scott Lank's team of directors, designers and actors has revived the show with a new, minimalist sensibility. They rely on audience imagination to invoke the story's most lurid details and to focus on its bigger, deeper ideas and emotions.

From the original, Tony-winning Broadway production, "Sweeney Todd" traditionally has featured plenty of blood and some showy, complicated mechanics to tell this Victorian tale of cruelty, vengeance, commerce and cannibalism.

The title character has returned to London to take revenge on those who, 15 years earlier, falsely sent him to prison, away from his family, all so a lusting judge could have his way the barber's wife, then steal his daughter.

Mad with revenge and angry at the world, the avenging barber teams with Mrs. Lovett, a widow whose pie shop flounders for lack of meat, to serve both their needs. He opens a second-floor barber shop connected by a floor chute to her kitchen.

This production, staged entirely on the skeletal steel platforms and staircases of Eric Renschler's scenic design, requires the audience to envision the blood and imagine all the mechanical details as the bodies journey from barber chair to meat pie. Except for razors and a rolling pin, nearly all the props - from shaving brushes to meat pies - are invisible, presented in pantomime.

Patti McCrory's stylized costume designs depart from the show's minimal character, reflecting personality, character and class in tightly cut bodices, luxurious robes and frazzled street clothes. Story, character and music take center stage, however, as does the nine-piece orchestra led by the show's music director, Gregor B. Rike.

Sondheim's dissonant music sets the discordant tone of this dark, twisted story of lost humanity.

Austin Lauer anchors the show with his smoldering stage presence and clear, powerful vocals. Kelsey Miller provides an earthy, comic counterpoint as Mrs. Lovett, driven by both avarice and her longing for more than a business relationship with Todd.

His darkness and her impossible hope bounce off one another delightfully in their "By the Sea" duet.

Grace Theobald brings a wary vulnerability to the role of Tobias, the orphan who comes to trust and adore Mrs. Lovett.

Other notables include: Robin Coppock's peacock turn as Adolfo Pirelli, the flambouyant, tonsorial huckster; T. J. Baldassare's ringing portrayal of Anthony Hope, the love-struck sailor Todd befriends; and Oriana Lada's lilting performance as Johanna, Todd's long-lost daughter and Hope's beloved.

The orchestra overpowered the chorus and a couple of soloists in a few scenes, but the 22-member cast performed Sondheim's difficult, often dissonant solo, incidental and ensemble numbers impressively in the show's opening which played nearly 2 hours with one intermission.

IF YOU GO

What: The University of Evansville's theater and music departments present Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

When: Through Nov. 24, playing at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Nov. 21 and at 2 p.m. Sundays.

Where: UE's Shanklin Theatre

Tickets: $17 for adults, $15 for students and those 65 and older, available at the box office or by calling 812-488-2031.

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