'Sweeney Todd' at Blank Canvas is an Up-Close View of a Big, Ballsy Broadway Musical

click to enlarge 'Sweeney Todd' at Blank Canvas is an Up-Close View of a Big, Ballsy Broadway Musical
(Photo credit: Andy Dudik)

In most cases when you go see a big Broadway musical you’re held at arm’s length from the large stage, admiring the cast from afar. And that’s just fine. But if you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be up close and personal with the performers who are belting out show tunes from a big and ballsy musical, shuffle on over to Blank Canvas Theatre.

Thanks to the chutzpah of artistic director Patrick Ciamacco, BCT is willing to mount damn near any musical on their postage stamp-sized stage. And even when it feels like numerous cast members are squeezed into the playing area like a hockey team in full gear jammed into a used Yugo, there’s still an aura of excitement generated by having the singers literally an arm’s length away.

At times, such as in BCT’s recent production of Cabaret, everything works almost to perfection. Then there are other times when the result is a bit mixed, such as in the current production of Sweeney Todd. This dark musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street in London, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, usually needs a certain amount of physical expanse to let its songs and blood lust flow with full freedom.

Director Jonathan Kronenberger and the uncredited scenic designer have found ways to stage all the various elements of this show. This includes the infamous Barber Chair of Doom that ushers unsuspecting haircut customers into eternity as fillings for the rancid meat pies of Mrs. Lovett, one floor below. And when there are only a couple actors on stage at a given time, the scenes play out with extraordinary power. But when a chorus number is called for, there’s apparently no choreographer on hand to serve as traffic cop.

That said, there are splendid voices and performances in the mix in this Sweeney. In the two lead roles, Ciamacco and Trinidad Snider mesh nicely as the sociopathic duo, even though their accents (hers British, his not) don’t quite comport. But they join forces to cut a brutal swath through London gents desiring a bit of pomade in their hair.

Ciamacco conveys the hate boiling in Sweeney Todd, generated by the venal Judge Turpin (Brian Altman) who packed Todd off to jail so the judge could boff Sweeney’s wife. Snider uses her strong pipes and slightly goofy presence to offer a fresh counterpoint to Ciamacco’s intensity, bringing a charming psychopathy to Mrs. Lovett and her pastries from hell.

They are supported well, notably by Meg Martinez and Robert Kowalewski who play the love-smitten Johanna (Sweeney’s daughter) and Anthony Hope, who rescued Sweeney at sea. Their voices elevate their songs, as do John Webb’s renditions as the Beadle and Devin Pfeiffer’s as Tobias Ragg. And Ian Jones steps in with a hilarious turn as a competitive barber Pirelli, whose secret identity leads to his demise. In the small but choice role of the Beggar Woman (who also has a secret identity), Kristy Cruz dials up the weird way past 11 and loses the character’s full dimension.

As difficult as Sondheim can be to sing, these folks do all the songs justice, helped immeasurably by the nine-person band under the direction of Matthew Dolan. And even when the action on the tiny stage has all the elegance of 17 cats fighting in a sack, this Sweeney Todd is pungent enough to keep you involved and even moved.

Sweeney Todd
Through March 10 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.
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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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