Review: A brave and noble effort at the Abreact

By Donald V. Calamia

It's easy to understand why most theater companies never consider staging Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Tony Award-winning "Sweeney Todd." Not only is it possibly the grimmest musical ever to hit the Broadway stage, it's also among the most difficult to sing. More of an opera than a traditional musical, Sondheim's complex score requires its performers to not only have extraordinary vocal ranges, but also the training and skill to work through complicated harmonies and "counterpoints" - different melodies sung by different performers that come together into a single, blended moment.

So when Detroit's coolest theater, the Abreact, announced its intention last year to mount a production in its second floor loft, eyebrows were raised - and it quickly became one of the season's most eagerly anticipated projects. How would they cram a full-scale production with some fairly heavy set requirements into what is essentially a space no larger than an average living room? Where would the voices come from - especially at the Abreact's non-union pay rate? And the squeamish asked, "Just how bloody would the production be?"

Director Thomas Hoagland - an Abreact founder - assured me late last fall during a chance encounter that he had it all figured out. And last Friday night's heart-felt and innovative opening performance proved that he had, indeed - except for one important thing.

It's a dark story: A highly-skilled barber falsely sentenced to Australia's penal colonies returns home to London 15 years later to learn that his wife committed suicide and the evil judge who framed him is raising his beautiful daughter. There's hell to pay, and with smitten co-conspirator Mrs. Lovett at his side, not only do the guilty pay deeply for their crimes, but Lovett's awful meat pie business takes a sudden and tasty jump in sales.

It takes only moments into the haunting swells of the musical's prologue to discover that Hoagland's skill as a director is fine, indeed. For rather than simply squishing a large cast onto a packed stage, he's kept his eye on what matters most: to tell the dramatic tale as cleanly and concisely as possible. So with a scaled-down cast of 13 and one musician - the original Broadway production featured more than two dozen actors and a full orchestra - Hoagland's imagination is focused on character and plot development. As such - and ever mindful that the audience is mere inches away from the action - the demon barber's story is intensely and engagingly told without ever overpowering the audience.

That's especially true of Frank Sawa's emotionally taut performance as the vengeful, murderous, yet deeply sad Sweeney Todd. The controlled power he brings to the role is near-perfect, as he shades Todd with equal amounts of evil, pity and destiny.

Others, too, inhabit their character's souls well, including Linda Rabin Hammell (the Beggar Woman), Mark Hammell (who personifies Judge Turpin), Molly McMahon (young Tobias) and Phil Bolden (Beadle).

Yet despite the entire cast's earnest, eager and energetic ACTING performances, what's missing are the singing voices Sondheim's music demands. Of the main characters, only the Hammell's come close - and one wonders what magic Rabin Hammell might have conjured as Mrs. Lovett. The others range from extraordinarily average - solo moments are generally okay - to painfully inadequate.

Hoagland's well-executed set design - probably the most expensive in Abreact history - and Chuck Reynolds' costumes far exceed expectations.

'Sweeney Todd'

The Abreact, 442 E. Lafayette, on the fringe of Greektown in Detroit. Fri.-Sun., through Feb. 24. Free/donations accepted. For information: 313-247-5270 or http://www.theabreact.com

The Bottom Line: An interesting study in contrasts: Beautifully staged, nicely paced and well acted - but seriously lacking in the vocal department

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