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Actors Theatre of Indiana continues their 2015-16 season with its brilliant production of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The show is noteworthy for many reasons, but primarily it again illustrates ATI’s impressive capabilities to produce large shows in a small venue.

Nothing about Sweeney Todd feels the least bit diminished under director Richard J Roberts’ skillful handling of the cast and the story-telling in Studio Theatre’s compact 200 seat setting. The demanding score is presented with rousing intensity under the direction of Johnna Tavianini, whose modest orchestra features her keyboard, a cello, a violin and percussion. P. Bernard Killian’s fine set design expands the limited onstage space with accommodations for a barber shop, pie shop, asylum, streets and docks. Katie Cowan Sickmeier’s muted costume designs set the Dickensian tone for the piece, and sound and lighting designs by Jonathan Parke and Erin Meyer complete the atmospherics needed to transport the audience. Dynamic makeup and hair design by Daniel Klingler added character, as well as the “horror effect”, where needed.

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Don Farrell as the title character in ATI’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

For those of you unfamiliar with the Sweeney Todd tale – it is an old one. The character of the deadly barber who murders his clients first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance in the late 1840’s. It has been continuously adapted and reworked as plays, a melodrama and a 1936 film, finally evolving into the dynamic ground-breaking work by Sondheim in 1979.

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Judy Fitzgerald (left) as Mrs. Lovett with Caleb Wertz as Tobias Ragg in ATI’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.

Director Roberts has cast an impressive combination of veteran performers and fresh talents. Accomplished performances of important roles by three skilled high-schoolers is a pleasant surprise here. Elizabeth Hutson is striking as Todd’s daughter Johanna. She is gifted with a beautiful voice and adept stage presence. Playing opposite her is John Collins, as the love-struck Anthony Hope. Collins’ vocals are a satisfying match with Ms. Hutson’s and he carries the day with his smooth, sure solos. Caleb Wertz’s Tobias Ragg is notable as well, as he shines in his performance of “Not While I’m Around”.

Rory Shivers-Brimm, Karaline Feller and John Vessels all handle multiple roles and chorus work with aplomb. Shivers-Brimm makes the very most out of his assignment as a continuing string of Sweeney Todd’s victims in one particularly well imagined section of the show. Ms. Feller is likewise employed in many smaller roles and is a standout vocally. Vessels is a priceless shyster as Adolfo Pirelli. His unique gift of a strong stage presence cannot be denied.

Paul Nicely, as Judge Turpin, and Craig Underwood, as The Beadle, both take on their villainous roles with relish. Nicely takes a quiet approach for his scoundrel, but we are nonetheless eager for his plans to fail. Underwood treats us to an over-sized evildoer who is blessed with outstanding vocal talent.

Cynthia Collins and Judy Fitzgerald fill demanding roles as, respectively, the Beggar Woman and Mrs. Lovett. Ms. Collins is sufficiently disturbing and off-putting as the tragic street lady. Her fateful end is well-played and emotionally charged. Ms. Fitzgerald’s strong performance shows qualities of a music hall talent, perfect for Mrs. Lovett’s song list. She plays the pie-maker with both joyfulness and a wistful longing for what cannot be.

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Don Farrell as the title character, and Judy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Lovett, in ATI’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.

 

The title role belongs to the talented Don Farrell, whose theatrical strengths are magnified in his portrayal. (I sat there musing – this is the same guy who last month was endearing us with his lovely portrayal of Toad in “Frog and Toad”?) Farrell is a fierce and strongly voiced Sweeney Todd, bent on revenge – torn apart by his losses – unmindful of anything but his quest for total destruction of his enemies and the safety of his daughter. There is a magnitude of emotion and dismay in this depiction, balanced only by the book’s more frivolous moments, which Farrell uses well to move his righteous wickedness forward. It is a totally wonderful, brilliant and accomplished turn by one of the most versatile actors is our region.

Finally, I must note how extraordinarily well the entire cast worked together in rendering this extremely complicated score. The layers of composition which are performed in this musical masterpiece are daunting, but directors Roberts and Tavianini, and their cast, have treated it with the respect it deserves. The result is more than merely impressive, it is a triumph!

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Rehearsal picture of the cast of ATI’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues its run through February 14th. This is going to be a very popular production, so I would urge you to make your ticket reservations soon. You can find out more about the performance schedule and reserve tickets by calling the Box Office at (317) 843-3800, or by going to the website at http://www.atistage.org.

  • – Photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Indiana
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