Comtra Theatre’s Devilishly Charming “Sweeney Todd”

By Eva Phillips

Maybe Sweeney Todd isn’t being egregiously hyperbolic when he says there is a place in the world full of shit called London. The plague looms heavy; perfidious law-makers and judges prey upon the innocent with impunity; cats are snatched up for pies; and depravity generally seems to run amok. And yet, even though the historical and cultural backdrop of London is utterly, and intentionally, dire, the murderous barber of Fleet Street is so vehemently opposed to the scourge of London for much more personal reasons.

Sondheim’s iconic, proto-cult-classic 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is brought to life, gloriously and monstrously (in the best sense of the word), at Comtra Theatre in yet another pristinely-produced, wildly engrossing effort from the exceptional creative team. Based on the fictional character Sweeney Todd, who first appeared in 1846 in a notorious penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls, Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning masterpiece chronicles the tragic and sordid struggles of Benjamin Barker, a savant-barber who is wrongly exiled from London and separated from his wife, Lucy Barker. Lucy falls prey to the nefarious lust of Judge Turpin, who is ever-aided by his demented right-hand-man

The spirited Ensemble in Comtra’s “Sweeney Todd”

Beadle, and after they work to have Barker shipped to Australia, Turpin rapes Lucy and ultimately takes her daughter with Barker as his ward. When Barker returns to London (with the fortuitous assistance of the guileless young sailor, Anthony), he has rebranded as Sweeney Todd to more efficaciously enact his vengeance on the men who preyed on Lucy and banished him, but is told by future partner-in-crime, piemaker Nellie Lovett, that Lucy poisoned herself and his daughter, Johanna, is trapped in Turpin’s care. Things then, inevitably, begin to spectacularly unravel.

Sweeney Todd, perhaps more than any other Sondheim work, is one that challenges the vocal acrobatics of the cast. Unsurprisingly, the cast assembled for Comtra’s Sweeney Todd is across the board up to the many tasks of bringing this masterpiece to life. Director Daniel McTiernan’s capacious knowledge and passion for this musical is evident throughout, reflected both in the outstanding quality of the production and in McTiernan’s involvement

(L to R) TrishaLee Hutchinson Boggs (Mrs. Lovett) and Jeff Johnston (Sweeney Todd)

in the production, serving as the nimble pianist and musical center throughout the entire show. Along with Assistant Directors and Pittsburgh-area theatre vets Cody Larko and Deborah Heyl, McTiernan has worked to create a show the pulsates with the palpable excitement of a performer doing the show they cherish and covet above any other show.

With McTiernan, Larko and Heyl’s superb direction, the extraordinary cast of this production consistently delivers some of the most outstanding performances I’ve seen. The cast’s excellence starts with the robust exoskeletal and interstitial work of the Ensemble (Clarence Seybert, Anna Gergerich, Jillian Lesaca, Kaitlyn Sinclair, and Caleb Boggs), who introduce the show (along with the rest of the company) in the stirring and brilliantly staged and choreographed number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The ensemble’s dedicated work is vital to the top-notch enjoyability and cohesion of Comtra’s production.

To go into the splendors and strengths of each and every member Sweeney Todd’s cast would be to subject a reader to a five-page review, so I must implore you understand that every performer is stunning in their own right. For the sake of time, I will shout-out a few of the most breathtaking performances. Jeff Johnston, who has had quite the theatrical year (seen

(L to R, Back to Front) Johnston and Ian C. Olson (Pirelli)

most recently as the Emcee in Cabaret at Little Lake Theatre), brings his trademark vim and vigor gusto to the titular role of the cursed barber. Johnston’s booming baritone and his ability to deftly alternate between spiteful hopelessness and manic delirium make his turn in the leading role an utterly sinister joy to watch. Starring as his co-conspirator and landlord Mrs. Lovett, TrishaLee Hutchinson Boggs is nothing short of revelation. She all at once is vocally stunning (on display in full force during numbers “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest”), effortlessly funny and surefooted, and able to efficaciously portray the many complexities of Mrs. Lovett (all while pulling off a cockney accent that actually convinces and charms). Comtra-regulars and always-delights on stage Victoria Buchtan and Ian C. Olson grace the stage with usual aplomb as Johanna and Pirelli, respectively. As the beautiful daughter of Todd and Lucy, Buchtan soars as the girl ensnared in the vile claws of Judge Turpin (a divine and perfectly repugnant Clay Glenny), and her duets with Anthony (Carmen LoPresti) are among some of the finest of the show. Olson is in peak form as the charlatan barber and purveyor of hair-elixirs Pirelli, and his few minutes on stage are commanding, beautifully sung, and pure

(L to R) Victoria Buchtan (Johanna) and Carmen LoPresti (Anthony)

comic gold. Finally, as the aforementioned naïve and earnestly romantic sailor Anthony, Carmen LoPresti is the epitome of enchanting, with his talents as a tenor and an authentically ebullient actor shining as the man who would’ve done better to never cross paths with the bloodthirsty barber.

There aren’t enough words to describe the thrills and successes of Comtra’s Sweeney Todd. Whether you are relatively unfamiliar with the show (as I, embarrassingly, was), or one of the productions rabid acolyte’s, Comtra’s production is infectious and enthralling from start to finish. Just avoid getting any pies at intermission, you know?

Sweeney Todd runs through November 16th. For tickets and more information, visit Comtra’s site.

Photography Credit: James Garvin Photography

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