A musical that has 'all the dynamics'

The Baltimore Sun

If an abundance of directing and performing talent predicts success, Annapolis Summer Garden's coming production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd will be a stunner.

At a recent rehearsal I found James Gallagher, who has given a string of searing performances in Bay Theatre's Oleana and Betrayal and in Dignity Players' Dead Man Walking, on the other side of the footlights serving as consulting director.

"This is my favorite musical, where the book and music are equally strong. It has all the dynamics," he said. "I saw it in New York City when I was a kid and was hooked. I've been waiting my whole life to be involved in it."

Director Ronald Giddings called Sweeney Todd "the best musical ever written."

"It is so multi-layered that it is almost impossible to appreciate on just one viewing," Giddings said. "The depth of the themes musically and dramatically make it a rewarding experience every time I hear it, and I've heard it a lot."

He predicted that audience members will get more out of the show each time they see it, so he expects repeat customers.

"This show speaks to your soul. It is a sensual explosion," Giddings said.

In 1973 composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim saw Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in a dramatic version of the 137-year-old play by Christopher Bond, and decided to turn it into a Broadway musical, which he did with help from director Hal Prince.

It opened on Broadway on March 1, 1979, ran for 557 performances and won eight Tony awards.

Having seen Sweeney Todd at the Kennedy Center years ago with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and more recently the Annapolis Chorale's concert version, I found both delivered sympathetic lead characters - not an easy task in a musical about a barber who slits his clients' throats and his baker accomplice who bakes their meat into her pies.

Sweeney Todd was once a decent man who now seeks revenge against the lecherous judge who destroyed his wife and daughter and condemned him to an Australian prison.

Todd escapes and returns to London to team with his former landlady Mrs. Lovett, who mainly is seeking love.

Other characters are the villainous Judge Turpin, whose ward Johanna is Todd's daughter, Johanna's suitor Anthony, a crazed beggar woman and Tobias, who works for and is devoted to Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd, Giddings explained, is a morality play where the audience is informed in the opening that a lesson will be learned by the end, and they are asked to take specific note of Sweeney's downfall, for it could be their own.

The information is given by a Greek chorus-like group, which Gidding pares from the original 10 glorified stage hands to what he describes as "a quartet who serve as Sweeney's conscience and ghostly shadows of his past that haunt him."

The embodiment of his inner struggle is costumed in long black cloaks, "which are ripped off of them when they become actual characters, as if they are breaking free of the shadows and entering the light," Giddings said.

In Summer Garden's production, Sweeney Todd will be played by David Thompson; Mrs. Lovett by Debbie Barber-Eaton, Tobias Ragg by Ron Giddings, Anthony Hope by Jamie Boyle, Johanna Barker by Lindsay Bell, the beggar woman by Alicia Sweeney, and Judge Turpin by Jim Knost.

Other cast members include Kaitlyn Myers, Catherine Chiappa, Simon Pyles, John Halmi, Stephen Deininger and Kevin Cleaver.

In addition to Giddings as director and Gallagher as consulting director, Marsha Goldsmith serves as music director and Elizabeth Zuses as stage manager.

Sweeney Todd opens June 29 and runs weekends through July 28. Tickets are $15 and $12 for seniors and students. For reservations, call 410-268-9212 or visit www.summergarden.com .

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