Musical theater evades certain criticisms as a contemporary art form far more than straight theater. While musical theater expectations are arguably higher in terms of technique, cloaked in the warm, fuzzy glow of nostalgia, the expectation for social or cultural relevance falls short. The same shows are revived again and again without reinvention. Musicals that are inherently sexist and/or racist are produced at major regional theaters.
Theo Ubique’s production of “Sweeney Todd,” their last at No Exit Cafe, has its problems. The cast is not particularly inclusive. The question of “why now?” goes unanswered, outside of the company’s desire to stage Sondheim’s masterpiece in their longtime home. The intimacy of the staging does not always equal the emotional intimacy that this story demands of its actors. The relationship between Sweeney Todd (masterfully sung by Philip Torre) and Mrs. Lovett (a solid performance by Jacquelyne Jones) never rises to the score’s volatility.
But ultimately Fred Anzevino’s production wins me over, in part because of the fully immersive design, and also because I have loved this music for years and it is impeccably performed. The music direction by Jeremy Ramey is the true star of this piece. Every member of this tight ensemble does Sondheim’s score justice. Megan Elk is a particularly affecting Beggar Woman, Hope Elizabeth Schafer is the ensemble’s key soprano and her high notes soar. Ingenues Cecilia Iole (Johanna) and Nathan Carroll (Anthony) bring presence and dimension to roles that too often fade into the background.
The elegant design by Ben Lipinski (scenic design) and James Kolditz (lighting) allows the actors to truly inhabit the space. It is a rare experience to be fully surrounded by Sondheim’s thunderous score or to have Sweeney’s trademark “Epiphany” sung right over your shoulder by a beautiful vocal talent is uniquely moving.
I wasn’t blind to the production’s flaws. I wish Anzevino had reached further to put this piece of art in context, in conversation with the real world. But the power of nostalgia is great and in Theo Ubique’s production the music transcends. (Erin Shea Brady)
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 North Glenwood, (773)347-1109, theo-u.com, $34-$44.Through April 29.