Stephen Sondheim’s long, lauded, and continuing career in the lyric theater has given opportunity for discovery as to his compositional demons, and the fire he uses to bully them into delivering meticulously melded words, married to inseparable pitch and rhythm. The combination of his music and lyrics fall on the ear as surprisingly as a secret newly whispered, and then sear immediately into memory, poetry that is exactly right; leave out one word or one pitch, and everything is lessened. The necessities for success, from start to finish, sit profoundly on the page. We have no reason to disbelieve his sharing in interview and print of the haunted, solitary process that drives him to agonize over every shred of text and melody.
In Porchlight Music Theatre’s mounting of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” there is much honor paid to the immaculate compositional construction that continues to make the piece a favorite. Musical director Doug Peck’s chorus blasts and floats the intricate harmonies and transgressive changes of meter flawlessly, racing about the stage delivering full-voiced Greek-chorus commentary while hauling furniture, adjusting flats, spinning the staircases of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, and turned out in Bill Morey’s period-perfect costumes.
But an accent coach is sorely needed to provide accents that ground us to place and time-period.
Kelli Harrington creates a tortured Beggar Woman, the vocal shifts in register matched as easily as those of mental confusion. Kevin Webb’s Pirelli vocally sizzles, his flamboyant, faux-Italian characterization only losing vigor in the reveal scene, Daniel O’Higgins’ accent insufficiently definitive. (The decision to cut the second verse of Pirelli’s aria is a loss to the evening.) Matthias Austin (as Beadle Bamford) is possessed of a pliant tenor. But the singing of Bamford requires a vocal switch back-and-forth from tenor to countertenor. One wonders if the casting of a countertenor with a strong chest voice would have given a more truthful result. Edward J. MacLennan’s Judge Turpin proves another piece of troublesome casting. MacLennan’s burnished voice only serves to highlight his youthful physicality and lack of emotional connection to Turpin’s evil nature. Porchlight has introduced high-school senior Miles Blim as Tobias Ragg, attempting to present a believable “boy” with the chops to sing such an exacting role, and Blim boldly tosses his budding talent into the ring. Should he properly apply himself, he is one to watch.
The casting of David Girolmo as Sweeney and Rebecca Finnegan as Lovett sounds like sheer heaven. The night I saw the show, they had a grand old time, unhappily at the expense of the music. Doug Peck’s orchestra chased them about the score, saving moments that seemed dire when the leading players wandered so far from the music as to create obvious disconnects with the orchestra. These two artists are masters of their craft and, as everyone is entitled to an off-night, I choose to believe I happened to witness exactly that. (Aaron Hunt)
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont, (773)327-5252, porchlightmusictheatre.org, $39-$45. Through November 16.