IN REVIEW | WICA’s ambitious production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ scores big

the 1979 Broadway production of 'Sweeney Todd' makes its way to South Whidbey.

Suzanne Kelman as Mrs. Lovett and Jason Dittmer as Sweeney Todd

In 1979, the original Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” won these Tony Awards: Best Original Score, Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design and Best Lighting Design.

The sheer number of awards given to this Stephen Sondheim musical upon its opening more than two decades ago should be reason enough to see the current production by Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, running for two more weekends at the South Whidbey High School auditorium.

But if truth be told, “Sweeney Todd” is not simply a musical.

It is operatic in its score and libretto, exploring the unlikely topic of murderous revenge and cannibalism, among other unsavory tidbits.

Sondheim himself called the play a “black operetta,” and it is no easy feat to produce, especially when tackled in the humble arena of community theater.

But under the musical direction of Dana Linn and Robert Marsanyi, along with the exquisite performance of conductor Chris Harshman’s orchestra, all guided by the theatrical direction of Deana Duncan, the little community-that-could has once again shown itself willing and able to take on a tricky artistic challenge and proven itself quite up to snuff.

Sondheim’s work is notable for his use of complex polyphony in the vocal parts and also displays a penchant for angular harmonies and intricate melodies.

The ensemble cast of this “Sweeney Todd” rose to the Sondheim challenge and was generally a pleasure to hear, giving the audience the gift of being able to sit back and enjoy some of the best music and lyrics that were ever written for the stage.

Everyone was impressive, from the light-hearted and funny turn of Suzanne Kelman as the wily Mrs. Lovett, even with an arm in a sling sprained in a rehearsal the day before opening night revealing her professionalism‚ to the dark and brooding bass-baritone captured nicely by Jason Dittmer in the title role.

Sommer Harris and Max Cole-Takanikos were wonderfully romantic as the young lovers, with the sweet-toned soprano Harris seemingly maturing before our eyes under the gaze of the endearingly smitten Cole-Takanikos.

Katie Woodzick gives a hilarious and adept performance as the conniving, Italian Adolfo Pirelli, while middle-schooler Andy Walker lends one of the most beautifully, heart-wrenching tenor voices as yet heard on the WICA stage to the character of the young Tobias.

Judge Turpin is appropriately menacing as sung by Robert Prosch with a rich and soothing tone, while Jim Scullin has a fine turn as the tenor Beadle Bamford, though this sympathetic-by-nature actor struggled to bring out a certain evil overtone which is necessary to his criminal character.

Dana Linn was exquisite as the mezzo-soprano madwoman, bending her body and her Cassandra-like cries within the brew of dereliction in which she burns; she is an effective solo chorus of pain.

The choral ensemble sounded glorious and well-rehearsed on opening night, especially when the entire cast joined to sing the finale, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

It must be said that the auditorium theater at the high school is bigger than the usually used WICA stage and although the actors did an excellent job filling the space with their voices, the entire cast would do well to remember a largeness of gesture, a broad physicality in every part of their bodies in order to fill the large, dominating black space of this theater.

Duncan and choreographer Art Anderson have provided the ensemble with effective stage pictures throughout the play, as the cast moves through the scenes as gracefully as Sonheim’s libretto moves through the plot. The ensemble has the opportunity to make each scene come alive, not only with voices, but with sharp, broad movement which will make this production truly soar.

The set looks appropriately creepy while deftly serving to move the action along smoothly. Duncan and her team of welders should be proud of the execution of the barber’s chair, which adds an appropriate air of macabre efficiency and a twisted bit of humor to the proceedings on Fleet Street.

The set also includes an enormous, bloody-colored steel oven, fashioned by local metal designer Tim Leonard, which looks fantastic.

Costume designer Valerie Johnson and lighting designer Ann CW Deacon should also be applauded, for they are the final icing on this dark cake, adding just the right tones of period dress and color; the dappled and moody light of one very sinister street in Victorian London.

Sondheim’s opera is like no other. It’s music is intricate and beautiful, it’s story a nail-biter. Consider yourself lucky to live in a community talented enough to actually do this play and do it all so well. Go see it.

“Sweeney Todd” plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, Saturday, Oct. 25, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26.

Performances are at South Whidbey High School, 5675 Maxwelton Road.

Tickets range in price from $12 to $20, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available at www.WICAonline.com or 221-8268.

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