On Sunday, December 6th, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center and saw a delightful production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical “My Fair Lady,” as presented by Skylight Music Theatre.

Natalie Ford as Eliza Doolittle was just excellent. Singing fine, dancing perfectly adequate to the rather simple choreography required of the character, but her real strength was in her acting. She is an eloquent physical actor, and her expressive face, combined with her vocal range, gave her Eliza a spirit and fire that I associate more with Judy Garland in her prime than with the frequently more subdued Audrey Hepburn.

Ms. Ford’s force wonderfully crashed against Norman Moses’ immovable object. As Henry Higgins, Moses’ default expression of a slight self-satisfied smile made the Professor an even greater monster of egotism than the classic Rex Harrison grouch version. That Moses’ Higgins seems to think he is above it all makes the disruptions Eliza causes in his comfortable life all the more effective.

Rick Richter as Colonel Pickering was all that the role required: upright, honest, kind, generous, and courteous. He cannot be faulted if he is not as charming as the late Wilfrid Hyde-White—no one could be.

Joel Kopishke had a lot of heavy lifting to do in the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, and handled the part of cheerful reprobate well. I disagree with whomever made the choice to give the character a thick beard, which I think hindered Mr. Kopishke’s ability to mug; Alfred P. Doolittle is a great mugging role, and we missed some of that behind the facial foliage.

The principals were very well supported by Carol Greif as Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and David Flores as the “hairy hound from Budapest,” Zoltan Karpathy. Diane Lane as Mrs. Higgins was marvelously kind, calm, and gracious—in a word everything her son is not. (Which makes me wonder, not for the first time, how Henry grew up to be such a pill. It must have been due to his father’s influence--.)

This also had to be one of the hardest working ensembles in theatre. When we’ve seen London street people, Ascot spectators, Embassy ball attendees, and Higgins’ household staff, it’s rather shocking to see only nine people in addition to the others taking a curtain call.

Stage business, as managed by Director Dorothy Danner was lively and clever, supplemented by enjoyable dancing choreographed by Pam Kreiger. The orchestra, directed by Shari Rhoades, supported the singers well and had excellent tone.

Costume design by Chris March was a major area of interest, in particular the Ascot scene, for which Mr. March provided some amazing outfits, in particular the hats, which nevertheless did not overwhelm the action. That bit of fantasy aside, I was equally impressed by how well the everyday outfits of the street people and servants looked. The Embassy Ball sequence was costumed with grandeur and elegance that was period-appropriate and wisely did not attempt to match the Ascot scene for excess.

The reconfigurable set pieces, especially when decorated with Higgins’ fine furniture, looked very well, and again gave the actors all they needed.

This was my first experience seeing “My Fair Lady” live and I was very glad I went. It is truly one of the classics of musical theatre, and the Skylight did it justice.

Highly recommended. "My Fair Lady" runs through December 27th.
We saw "Into the Woods" this afternoon (Dec.28th) and liked it quite a bit. Of course, it's a show we particularly like, and have seen some good stage productions of.

"Into the Woods" was one of the first major works to use the conceit of putting well-known fairy tales into the same milieu, an idea that has since been used with considerable success by the comic series "Fables," and the TV show "Once Upon a Time," among others. The four items needed by the Witch tie together four plots into a single braid, an idea which works well in my opinion, and devices such as the Baker being the man who buys Jack's cow being rather clever.

(For those not familiar with the musical, the first act ties together the stories of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) with an arc in which the Baker (James Corder and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who are the second generation of the Rapunzel story, deal with the Witch (Meryl Streep) in order to be able to have a child, also a classic myth trope. In the second act, things go south as the Giant’s Wife (Frances de la Tour) devastates the kingdom seeking revenge on Jack, and the characters’ community is torn apart by loss and bickering as to who’s to blame.)

The plot actually has considerable philosophical depth, not only with the frame metaphor of the Woods being the place of transformation, where the "hero's journey" begins. I also like the losses of innocence experienced by Red Riding Hood, Jack, the Baker and his Wife, and Cinderella. There is also the question of the transience of satisfaction once the hitherto unattainable has been gained, as personified by the Princes (more so in the stage version than the movie).

We particularly liked Meryl Streep as the pivotal character of The Witch (although Bernadette Peters, who played the role on Broadway, is still THE Witch,) and Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. All the actors did their own singing, according to the credits, and did very well, handling Stephen Sondheim’s occasionally challenging music deftly. Sondheim’s score for “Into the Woods” is rather more tuneful than say “Sweeney Todd,” or “Assassins,” and there are many powerful "motivs" such as the "Into the Woods," theme, "Agony," and "Children Will Listen," all of which usually stick with me for days after hearing a performance.

Due to limitations on practical staging, the typical stage version is played in front of The Woods, with a few set pieces that move on and off, and you never actually see the Princes' castle, either of the Giants, or some of the other locations opened out for the film, which did expand it quite a bit. (On the other hand, I appreciate bits of stagecraft in theatre such as having the presence of the Giant Wife indicated by her broken spectacles on stage--.) I did think the scenery additions were an enhancement, and liked it that they kept themes such as never seeing the Giant’s Wife fully.

Your mileage may vary, but I would class "Into the Woods" as highly recommended for fans of musical theatre.
On January 6th, we went to see the other "big" movie of the season, the film adaptation of the musical "Les Miserables". We enjoyed this very much as well, although, again, our joy was not unmixed.

It was a bold (although, for Hollywood, not unexpected)move to cast "name" performers not known for their singing, in a musical famous for its near-operatic structure and score. Yes,I know that Hugh Jackman won a Tony on Broadway, but having a voice that is basically competent for musical theatre does not necessarily mean you are a wonderful singer. Analysis after the movie caused us to conclude that the main reason that most reviewers tended to find Jackman good in the role of Jean Valjean, while criticizing Russell Crowe as Javert, is that Jackman has an expressive face that allows him to "sell" his songs (particularly with the aid of the close-up), whereas Crowe's beefy visage just looks stolid, even when singing his big final number. Or, as Georgie put it, "Both men can act, and both can sing. Jackman can act and sing at the same time, and Crowe can't." In my opinion, both were adequate singers but neither great. The role of Valjean is near the top of Jackman's range, such that he is near falsetto quite often, which causes him to lack flexibility and intensity, which is a shortcoming particularly in Valjean's signature song, "Bring Him Home" ("Hear my prayer--"). Crowe also has a high voice which doesn't sit well with the part of Javert, usually a baritone, so he also lacks the growling power called for in the role.

The best singing in the movie belongs to the women, with first place going to Anne Hathaway in the role of Fantine. Her "I Dreamed a Dream" is as touching as any I have heard. A close second is "On My Own," Eponine's song of unrequited love, as sung by Samantha Barks (who is actually a veteran of the stage version).

Ensemble where present is very good, and the company appropriately stirring on anthems such as "Red and Black," and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

Digital sound is obviously an advantage and allowed the immediacy of the actors being recorded on the sets as shot, rather than dubbed later. I predict there will be an Oscar for sound engineering for this accomplishment. Also, the actors that have the ability can use a wider range of dynamics and expression than if they had to fill a 2000-seat auditorium with their voices.

Unfortunately, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are jarringly bizarre as the larcenous Thenarediers, which is more a problem of the production and the direction than the actors (Bonham Carter's actual performance is actually rather understated). They are SO overblown caricatures of untrustworthiness no one in his right mind would have come near them, let alone enter the den of thieves they are calling an inn. The choreography for "Master of the House," which shows them fleecing patrons of everything from eyeglasses to glass eyes, would have had the gendarmerie down on them in seconds. The couple is intended to be the comic relief in the musical, but this version went way over the top.

Production values are very high, and I think Victor Hugo would have approved of the vizualization of Valjean's factory, the harrowing tale of Fantine's desperation and degradation, and the dirty and scrofulous-looking poor. Costumes look well and period-appropriate, and settings were mostly interesting and believable. A notable exception is the opening sequence, which shows Valjean and hundreds of other convicts deployed with hawsers, hand-towing a listing ship into an open drydock. A DRY drydock, which is nevertheless OPEN to the stormy sea! Whomever came up with this concept obviously has no idea how a drydock works. As it was, the scene had me saying "What?". Fortunately the effect soon wore off.

Verdict: well worth seeing for the acting and the spectacle. Then, go find "2010 Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary" on DVD and hear the singing as it should be heard.
On Friday night the 29th, we drove up to the North Junior High School auditorium in Monomonee Falls, for the Falls Patio Players' production of "Annie," the musical based on the now defunct "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip.

We went particularly because our friend,Lillian Sullivan, was in the chorus, but also because the show is rather special to us, as one of our first dates was to see a travelling production at the Madison Civic Center.

The Falls Patio Players are generally regarded as one of the top community theatre groups in the area, and this production showed why. There was an impressive array of good looking sets, mostly period appropriate costumes, and very good lighting and sound. "Annie" is not a big dancing show, but what dancing there was, was adequate to the purpose. I've always thought that one of the challenges for local groups putting on the show is the scene involving the dog, Sandy, and this showed why--"Riley",in the role of Sandy, slithered out of his collar on stage, but fortunately didn't do anything more awkward than run back and forth, the "back" part being inspired by the pocket full of doggie treats Madeline McNichols was supplied with. Extra props to her for handling the glitch with fair style and not getting rattled!(Frankly, I don't understand why a local director wouldn't just cut this scene. Yes, it can be cute, but doesn't advance the plot and Sandy disappears soon after--.)

The show had an excellent cast. Of course the role of Annie is critical, and 5ht grader Madeline McNichols was excellent. She has a fine voice but is not over-schooled, so she sounds like a "real" girl. She has good stage presence and handled all her scenes very well, although she could use a bit more movement when singing as she tends to stand rather stiffly. That is a minor criticism, however, for a very strong performance. Tom Horrigan filled the other vital role of Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks. Horrigan looked great, and acted and sung very well. Horrigan's voice was a bit lighter than I expected in this role (Warbucks tends to be done with the "booming" voice, especially when speaking) but I was very pleased with Horrigan, who made the billionaire less of a caricature and more of a vulnerable figure whose affection for Annie is quite believable.

Ceri Hartnett was also very entertaining as the gin-soaked harridan Miss Hannigan, and was well-supported by Jeff Anderson as her no-goodnik brother Rooster, and Allison Chicorel as his moll, Lily St. Regis.

There was one unfortunately weak portrayal in the show, and that was David A. Robins in the admittedly difficult role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Robins' FDR impression was weak at best, and absent much of the time. Given all the money laid out on sets and costumes, couldn't the Players have sprung for a toupee for Robins? The fact that he's partly bald and has the rest of his head near-shaved did not help his projection of character.

The Players presented very good sounding and well-drilled ensemble of children and of adults, and a nice orchestra that did not drown out the singers, all of which added to our considerable enjoyment.
We managed to catch the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Cabaret” Oct. 20, in the last week of its run, and were very pleased with it. This was an unusual production for the Rep, since they don’t usually do musicals, but they went all out with the biggest stage band I’ve ever seen in a “Cabaret” production and enlisting Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink to do the choreography.

Lee Ernst was seemingly tireless as the Master of Ceremonies, who is a lurking presence throughout most of the show. For a man best known as an actor, Ernst handled the singing and dancing required of the M.C. with fine style. One thing I was a bit disappointed in was the costume given to Ernst, which started off quite bizarre from the beginning featuring vinyl boots, corset, and short-sleeved tailcoat with opera gloves. I’m used to the M.C.’s outfit getting more decadent as time goes on along with the KItKat Klub numbers, and kind of missed that effect. However, Ernst himself was excellent in all the many songs and dances the M.C. has.

Unfortunately, that was one area where Kelley Faulkner as Sally Bowles disappointed. She acted well in the critical role, creating a persona quite distinct from the iconic Liza Minnelli characterization, which worked well. Her singing voice is fine, and up to the challenge. However, she did not have the moves or physical presence to put across being a popular nightclub performer. Some of this may have been directorial decision, but neither Georgie nor I found it credible that, no matter how broken up Sally might have been at the end, she could not have stood at the microphone and sung “Cabaret” without, as the current saying goes, “busting some moves.” Nevertheless, she stood there like a post while singing. One wonders what she was doing while all the others were doing dance rehearsals.

Even Jonathan Gillard Daly managed a very creditable bit of soft-shoe, appropriate to his role as Herr Schultz, the Jewish greengrocer.

In fact, if there were a flaw at all with Michael Pink’s choreography, it would be that it was almost too perfect. Looking at the intricate dancing on “The Money Song,” I had to wonder how a rather shabby nightclub would manage to have such good dance routines.

All of the cast was very strong. Geoffrey Hemingway was excellent in the viewpoint role of Clifford Bradshaw, a role that is kind of overshadowed since he doesn’t sing or dance, but he was very expressive and believable in reacting to the fantastic shadow world of Weimar Berlin. Linda Stephens was a standout in the role of landlady Fraulein Schneider, and got a deserved ovation for her angst-ridden rendition of “What Would You Do?” Angela Iannone added to her string of excellent and varied characterizations as the spiteful prostitute, Fraulein Kost. Daly was charming and touching as the aging lonely gentleman. The "Cabaret Girls," "Boys" and the band were all splendid.

It seemed to me this production had a bit more edge than most I’ve seen, ending with a chilling tableau. All in all, an excellent show and we were very pleased with it.

Saturday evening,  the 19th, we drove out to the Unitarian Universalist Church West for the last concert of the Wisconsin Cream City Chorus’ season, titled “Dancing Through Life.”  The theme of the concert was not just songs about dancing, although there were a lot of those, but songs about making one’s way through life as well.

Interestingly, the concert’s two acts broke down as the first, more heavily dance themed, which had a lot of music I was familiar with, and the second, more philosophical, which had a lot of music that was new to me.

It was kind of a daring theme for a group that doesn’t include any serious dancers and usually has pretty basic choreography. Nevertheless, a lot of good energy, motion, and timing made up for almost any perceived shortcomings.

The first half opened with “Dancing Through Life” from Wicked, and then went on with “Shine” from Billy Elliot, and “Razzle Dazzle ‘Em,” from Chicago.   “Tap Your Troubles Away” from Mac & Mabel was a really cute duet for Shirl Greeb and Hillary Giffen, but this was one song about dancing where it was particularly noticeable that no dancing was included.  This was followed by a medley of songs by Richard Rodgers and collaborators Sondheim, Hammerstein, and Hart, which was familiar and fun.

Tim Ruf’s solo, “Last Waltz for Dixie,” (from Civil War by Murphy and Wildhorn), with its elegy for the “lost cause”, might have seemed an odd choice for a group dedicated to diversity and tolerance, but was delivered with feeling and a sensibility for the pain of loss which gave some grounding to the set.

Shirl Greeb followed with another solo, “It’s an Art,” from Working, which all of us who had ever worked in food service applauded heartily.

The set built up to a big finish with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Tango Maureen,” (from Rent) and closed with the infectious “Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray.

After a short intermission, the second half began with “Human Heart” from Once on this Island, and continued with “I Feel So Much Spring” (A New Brain) and “Can You Find It In Your Heart” (Footloose). One of the highlights of this section was “Song of Purple Summer” from Spring Awakening. ( I was a bit surprised that this cheerful and upbeat piece came from the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s dismal and sordid play.  Looking up the musical, I see the plot’s the same, and “Song of Purple Summer” is the “hopeful” finale piece.)

The act continued with “Times Like This” from Lucky Stiff, a medley from Next to Normal,  and “To A Dancing Star” (musical of the same name). And how could anyone resist ending their show and their season with a song called “The Last Curtain Call” (from Everyman)? 

This was a very enjoyable, mostly upbeat, and fun concert which showed the group’s talents to good effect.  We have ordered our tickets for next season.

We hadn't even known there was a musical called "Jekyll & Hyde" until passing a poster on the street a couple of weeks ago, announcing that Wauwatosa East High School was doing it March 19-20 and 26-27. When some of the Village Playhouse people recommended it, we decided to go on Saturday evening the 20th and were very glad we did.

The original musical played Broadway from 1997 to 2001, with 1,543 regular performances. It was nominated for a number of awards, won a couple of the Drama Desk awards, wasn't particularly well reviewed, and lost money, which may help explain why it's rather obscure, although it has toured.
Not surprisingly, given the subject matter, one can see influences of both "Phantom of the Opera" and "Sweeney Todd". Georgie and I both noticed musical and stylistic similarities to "The Scarlet Pimpernel," and I'm not surprised to discover that Frank Wildhorn is the composer of both shows. (Wildhorn seems to specialize in adapting classic literary properties for the musical stage. His credits also include "Svengali", "Dracula," "Cyrano De Bergerac, The Musical," and "The Count of Monte Cristo.") The best known song from the piece is "This Is The Moment," which I recognized, perhaps from the Olympic Games, where it has become a popular theme.

The book of the musical, by Leslie Bricusse, adds a number of ideas to Robert Louis Stevenson's story that I think work well. The musical opens with Dr. Jeykll (Ryan Stajmiger) standing over a sedated mental patient strapped down on a gurney. In the song "Lost in the Darkness" Jeykll sings of his desire to find a cure for the man, who, we find at the end of the song, is his father. This gives Jeykll's goal of driving out evil from human nature a focus and a practical application (although the rather nebulous connection between "madness" per se and "evil") is never expanded upon.
Jeykll appeals to the Board of Governors of St. Jude's Hospital to be allowed to experiment upon a human subject, but his request is denied. (This is interesting, since the board, consisting of a Bishop, a General, a lawyer, and two of the nobility, in fact all have vested interests in seeing Jeykll fail. What need would there be for churches if mankind returns to an unfallen state? What would happen to the professions of the law and the army? Whom would the nobility feel morally superior to?) Of course they all couch their objections as the process being "too dangerous."

Denial of access to an experimental subject leads to the action we all know of. In this show the transformation into "Edward Hyde" was done by the simple expedient of Stajmiger releasing his long hair from its tie-back, accompanied by changes in expression, posture and voice that were well done and consistently maintained through the performance. (This reminds me of the famous silent-film treatment by John Barrymore, who only added a wig to become Hyde.) Hyde embarks on a career of vice which ends the first act with his brutal murder of the hypocritical Bishop.

The second act continues Hyde's murder spree taking revenge on the St. Jude's Governors. Meanwhile, Jeykll struggles to bring the incubus under control, with his pending marriage to Emma (Vanessa Libbey), daughter of Jeykll's friend, Sir Danvers Carew, adding desperation and an element of "Frankenstein" to the story.

This whole production was very impressive. The sets were particularly nice (although I didn't really understand the inclusion of the hanging mirror in Jeykll's lab, which seemed only a distraction. Considerable effort went into the costuming for the large cast, although it was evident that many pieces were catch-as-catch-can, with the result that Jeykll wears an evening cutaway coat through out the show, including to a morning meeting, and Sir Danvers Carew wears a morning coat, including to an evening party. Overall, things read well and the effect was enjoyable.

Ryan Stajmiger, a senior, could have a good career ahead of him if he decides to pursue either acting or music. He has a powerful tenor voice that was always right on. He is a skillful and athletic actor who managed the dual role marvelously well, including a Sméagol/Gollum-like mirror debate between Jeykll and Hyde that was managed with the help of no special effects other than changes of light. Equally good were the two female leads, Vanessa Libbey as Emma Carew, singing a role that might have been written for Sarah Brightman, and Magdelyn Monahan as Lucy, the bar girl/prostitute who becomes a victim of Hyde's depredations.

The supporting cast sang, danced, and acted to a very high standard for a high school production generally, although of course some performers were weaker than others. The orchestra for the performance maintained a good level of dynamics and solid tempos throughout the show. The only significant flaw in the performance was the brass section, with both the horn and the trumpets being noticeably out of tune at times.

Performances continue March 26 and 27 at 7:30PM at Wauwatosa East High School. Tickets are $10.00 and may be purchased by check in the Wauwatosa East High School office during regular school hours, or by credit card by calling 773-2110, or at the door.
On Wednesday night, December 17th, we enjoyed our "holiday" outing to the theatre by, perversely enough, taking in the Skylight Opera Company's production of Mel Brook's "The Producers" instead of something like "A Christmas Carol" or "The Nutcracker."

One has to give the Skylight kudos for programming this cynical, satirical, and anything-but seasonal piece counter to those two perennial big draws mounted by the Milwaukee Rep and the Milwaukee Ballet, respectively. Judging by the house, they were doing quite well, as they should be, given the strength of the show. Local critics have compared it favorably with the Broadway production, and, given certain necessary reductions in scale for the size of the house, I would have to agree.

It certainly is one of the most lavish productions I have seen the Skylight mount, with over 150 costumes, nearly as many wigs, and fifteen scene changes in the two acts, all of which are put to good use.

The cast is lead by Bill Theisen as Max Bialystock and Brian Vaughn as Leo Bloom. Both are very good, have excellent comic timing, sing well, and handle such dancing as they are given adequately. My only criticism would be that Vaughn's nasally neurotic voice occasionally defaults to a Midwestern open-ness--. (OK--, while Theisen and Vaughn are, in my mind, every bit as good as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, it must be admitted that none of them have quite the edge of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, but then, who does? Probably one of the tragedies of musical theater would be that this version didn't come along while Mostel and Wilder were both still around and able to do it--.) Vaughn was particularly effective working gags with Bloom's blue blanket, and Thiesen earned his full night's pay with the one tour-de-force "Betrayed", in which he holds the stage alone and essentially recaps the entire show up to that point solo.

Of course, once the plot takes off, Bialystock and Bloom become relatively normal compared to the loons they work with in bringing "Springtime for Hitler" to the stage, and in this regard Thiesen and Vaughn had a stellar supporting cast. Molly Rhode, as Ulla (pronounced "OO-la") showed off marvelous comic timing, a great set of pipes (almost too loud for the house with amplification on "Along Came Bialy"), excellent physical acting chops, and never lost her juicy "Svedish" accent once.

The indefatigable Ray Jivoff, one of Milwaukee's hardest working actors, was gloriously shameless as taste-challenged director Roger De Bris, and Jonathan West was almost believable as the stage-struck SS veteran Franz Lebekind.

And speaking of hard work, one must mention the ensemble, fourteen actors who danced and sang their way through roles as theatregoers, policemen, judges and jurors, prisoners, the cast of "Springtime", and Bialystock's harem of moneyed old women (even the men!).

This was a great job by everyone concerned and thoroughly enjoyed. The cast received a standing ovation, heartily joined by, I was amused to note, the tall old man wearing the yarmulke, a few seats over from us--.
Saturday the 22nd we went to the Downer Theatre to see the new film of "Sweeney Todd," and had a very good, if ghoulish, time.

A bit of background for me: I have a particular fondness for the character, since it was one of my more satisfying portrayals for Lytheria's Halloween trick-or-treat a decade or so ago (second only to Gomez Addams--). Georgie and I had seen a very good production of the musical staged by Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre, and, when Lee Schneider announced the theme would be "Victorian London", Georgie and I reserved the parts of Mrs. Lovatt and "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," respectively. I was provided with a straight razor (edge filed down for safety), discreetly bloody apron and sheet, and barber's basin filled with stage blood. Georgie had apron, mob cap, butcher knife, and a lump of pie crust dough she kneaded thoughtfully while studying the children--. We also had a "Mrs. Lovatt's Pies" menu list full of double-entendre dishes like "shepherd pie" and "ploughman lunch." The best moment for me was when I invited Lee's petite aged mother to sit in my chair--and got back a very tart and forceful "Not bloody likely!" I hadn't met her before and had not known she was a British war bride who knew very well who Sweeney Todd was!

I had good fun researching the character. (What? Don't you research your Halloween characters/costumes?) It is best documented that Sweeney Todd first appeared, as far as can be told, in an English penny-dreadful called "The People's Periodical" in 1846, The story in which he appeared was titled "The String of Pearls: A Romance," and was written by Thomas Prest,who created several other gruesome villains. He tended to base his horror stories partly on truth, sometimes gaining inspiration from real crime reports in The Times, which has given some credence to the urban legend that there was a real Sweeney Todd. However, historical research has failed to turn up any remotely similar case.

However, "The String of Pearls" was adapted as a melodrama in 1847 by George Dibdin Pitt and opened at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, with the title "Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and billed as 'founded on fact'. It has been part of British theatre and legendry ever since.

The orginal Sweeney Todd was a murderous robber and serial killer (The string of pearls was part of his loot--.) with no motive but malice. It was not until 1973 that Christopher Bond added the "Benjamin Barker" backstory and revenge motive in his stage adaptation. It was this version that Stephen Sondheim used as the basis for his musical, and which has now been adapted for the screen by Tim Burton.

If not a work of genius, the film is certainly an artistic masterwork of a kind. I am surprised that the term "Grand Guignol" has not featured in reviews, since it certainly partakes of that genre: I assume that this lack is due to the ignorance of current critics, or their presumption of the ignorance of their readers. The Grand Guignol theatre was famous for its viscous stage blood, and that is where "Sweeney Todd" starts off in the main title sequence with a rivulet of "blood" that starts at the barber chair and seeps down through Mrs. Lovatt's kitchens and into the sewers, gradually becoming a torrent that encarnadines the Thames.

The action begins with the song "No Place Like London/A Hole in the World," sung by Jamie Campbell Bower, as "Anthony Hope," the young sailor who has befriended Todd, and Johnny Depp as Todd. All the actors do their own singing: Sondheim's music, although tuneful, goes for the dramatic rather than beautiful, and so does not require beautiful voices to sing it. that said, Depp, Helena Bonham Carter as "Mrs. Lovatt", and Alan Rickman as "Judge Turpin," do very well. If there is occasional lack in enunciation of the often fast and difficult text, it is made up for by expression and interpretation. The broad characters of "Beadle Bamford," (Timothy Spall) and Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) have little singing, and what they do is adequate to their characters. The lover roles of "Anthony", and "Johanna" (Jayne Wisener) are filled with people who can sing prettily when needed. The remaining principal role, that of the boy Toby, is very well done by Ed Sanders, both acting and singing.

Burton's vision of "Fleet Street" is a dead gray world the color of old roadkill, overlain with a colorless sky streaked by black coal smoke. Only in flashbacks is there any true color. Even Judge Turpin's decadent study is subtly dimmed. Depp's Sweeney Todd is a grim spectre returning to old haunts, and resembles a Beethoven gone bad, with brroding brow and Goth white streak in otherwise still-black hair. Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovatt is a frowzy vampyre, hopefully inhabiting the ruin of Barker/Todd's life, waiting for something to turn up.

As "Benjamin Barker," Todd had had a brief idyllic life with his barbering business, his beautiful wife Lucy, and baby daughter, Johanna. All this is lost when Judge Turpin casts covetious eyes on Lucy, and frames Barker and sentences him to transportation for life to get him out of the way. Barker, hiding under the Todd identity, returns to England illegally fifteen years later having suffered terrible hardships, including shipwreck, hoping to recover some of the pieces of his past life. His hopes are dashed when Mrs. Lovatt, who has her own not-so-ulterior motives, reports that Lucy was raped and abandoned by Turpin, and then took poison, and Turpin adopted Johanna as his own ward.

Anthony, having seen Johanna in the window of Turpin's house, has fallen in love with her and conspires with Todd (not knowing he is her father) to elope with her, which goes wrong when he blurts out part of the plan in Todd's shop, not knowing that the man being shaved (and seconds away from death) is Turpin. Being cheated of both his revenge on Turpin and recovery of his daughter sends Todd into a spiral of madness in which he seeks revenge on the entire world, with Mrs. Lovatt's willing assistance.

The movie is done with close-up intimacy that the stage cannot match: consequently, the musical numbers are limited to the principals, and the choral numbers "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "God, That's Good," and "Hold Your Razor High, Sweeney!" have been (ahem) cut, although the latter recurrs as the leitmotiv of Sweeney's revenge and the others are not really missed. The close-up intimacy also makes the scenes of murder quite "in-your-face". After all, when throats are cut, blood is going to gush and spray, and so it does. In addition to the expectable gargles and gasps, the soundtrack also reproduces the crackle of cartilage being cut. In short, not for the faint of heart. I noticed that, although audience members laughed quite vigorously at the early black humor, they fell silent as the story built to its horrific conclusion. However, I also noticed that no one left--.

Virtuoso performances by Depp, Bonham Carter, and Rickman. What I think of as the 'seduction scene', the Todd-Turpin duet "Pretty Women", was particularly good--. Excellent support by Spall as the smarmy bully henchman and Cohen as "Pirelli". "Pirelli" is the only character who initially seems 'over the top', but it turns out there is reason for that. We have been following Timothy Spall's career for many years, and he really is a fine actor. I hope we will get to see more of his 'straight' roles over here eventually. That said, "Beadle Bamford" is juicily done and a character quite unlike "Wormtail." Young Ed Sanders, in his first film role, shows great promise and holds his own as the innocent boy "Toby", who is, at least until the end, seemingly the only sane one of the lot.

Highly recommended for the adventurous. The film is rated R for violence (buckets o' blood!) and definitely not for the impressionable.

Pie, anyone?

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September 2017

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