THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

By C.S. Lewis
Dramatized by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Avon Theatre, June 2-November 13, 2016,/b>

(L-R): Sara Farb (Lucy), Andre Morin (Edmund), Ruby Joy (Susan), Gareth Potter (Peter) (photo: David Hou)

(L-R): Sara Farb (Lucy), Andre Morin (Edmund), Ruby Joy (Susan), Gareth Potter (Peter)
(photo: David Hou)

I admit to not having read any of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales until a month or two ago, so I cannot call myself a true blue fan—unlike the rather snotty boy seated beside me at a matinee. When I asked if he had read the fiction, he replied, smart phone in hand: “Well, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t, would I?” I hope will be as avid a reader of Shakespeare when he sees a Stratford Shakespearean production. But the truth is that no one has to be familiar with the fable before seeing Adrian Mitchell’s skilful adaptation (originally for the RSC), directed lovingly and with read charm by Tim Carroll. This production will make children of us all, in the best sense because it invokes our imagination the way any good fantasy does. And it releases its story through an old wardrobe.

The back story behind this device is interesting. An Oxford don, C.S. Lewis lived outside the city in a large house where he hosted young children who had been evacuated from London to escape Nazi bombardment. One of these children became fascinated by an old wardrobe in one of the bedrooms and wondered what might be in it. Lewis drew on this child’s curiosity to shape his Chronicles of Narnia, and Tim Carroll’s fabulous production (pun intended) channels Lewis’s flights of fancy with admirable simplicity and imaginative inventiveness.

Tom McCamus (left) as Aslan and Gareth Potter as Peter Photography by David Hou.

Tom McCamus (left) as Aslan and Gareth Potter as Peter
Photography by David Hou.

Carroll remembers what it is like to be a child, especially one who has to deal with adults, what it means to be called a liar when a better word might be an imaginer. And running true to the spirit of literature, he frames his handsome production with a literary emblem: a world of books. The most significant characters and props are made of paper and book bindings, beginning (in Douglas Paraschuk’s splendid design) with Professor Kirk’s house, continuing with a book-bedecked alternative universe on the other side of the wardrobe, and reaching a glorious high point with the awesomely regal approach of Aslan, whose giant head, torso, and paws are made of scraps of paper like a huge animal puppet, with two humans controlling his movements from within his paper hide. Alexis Milligan’s puppets (large and small) owe a debt to War Horse and The Lion King, but this does not diminish their appeal, and Aslan’s death and resurrection are striking coups de theatre, certain to be show-stopping moments.

Carroll also re-visits wartime England and the issue of evacuated children, for his production starts with the horrors of the London Blitz when the four Pevensie children take a railway carriage (a mere representation of one) from London to presumed safety in the countryside and the abode of Professor Kirk (a stern, tousle-haired Tom McCamus) and his Scottish housekeeper Mrs. Macready (Rosemary Dunsmore). Right from the start, Carroll has superb creative collaborators in Brad Peterson (projections), Kevin Fraser (lighting), the late Todd Charlton (sound), and, of course, the afore-mentioned Douglas Paraschuk. The Blitz scene and evacuation are rendered dramatically by lanterns in pouring dark and silhouettes on a cyclorama, and after the children pass through the wardrobe into Narnia, the décor shifts to a winter scene of stone statues and fifty shades of fir in a winter wonderland.

(L-R): Andre Morin (Edmund) and Yanna McIntosh (White Witch) Photography by David Hou.

(L-R): Andre Morin (Edmund) and Yanna McIntosh (White Witch)
Photography by David Hou.

Dana Osborne’s costumes come to the fore with the appearances of Steve Ross’s Mr. Beaver (and his large whimsical tail), Barbara Fulton’s buck-toothed Mrs. Beaver, Sean Arbuckle’s Giant Rumblebuffin, Mike Nadajewski’s Mr. Tumnus (a tearful faun with butter hoofs), and Yanna McIntosh’s glitteringly evil White Witch, who delights in turning enemies to stone and making Narnia a place where it is “always winter and never Christmas.”

But the beguilement is not entirely a matter of projections and puppets, décor and lighting, costumes and sound effects. It is also certainly not because of the music and songs, which often sound tonally wrong. Much of the charm lies in the acting ensemble, particularly Nadajewski’s Tumnus, but strong points are also scored by Sara Farb’s sweet-natured Lucy; Ruby Joy’s caring, motherly Susan; Andre Morin’s conflicted Edmund); Gareth Potter’s stalwart, heroic Peter; and Tom McCamus’s Aslan (though McCamus does not show much vocal differentiation between his Professor and the lion). Little wonder that this show is the hottest ticket so far this season.

THE HYPOCHONDRIAC

By Moliere
In a new version by Richard Bean
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
At the Festival Theatre, August 18-October 14, 2016

Stephen Ouimette as Argan

Stephen Ouimette as Argan

Like William Hutt, his celebrated Stratford predecessor in the title role of Argan, Stephen Ouimette expresses the tools of his comic craft externally. In his case, these include a quavering voice, a quivering fury or befuddlement, a stooped back, a flat-footed shuffle, and a face with puffy bloodhound eyes that register absurd miserliness, eye-rolling rage, and stubborn folly. Whether lying in a big bed in his ruffled nightgown soiled by his bowel disorder, or sitting officiously in a chair, he allows his self-absorption to waver according to the tallies of bills for enemas and medicine bottles. Physical maladies—mostly imagined—are music to his mind, and the worse the diagnosis, the greater his ecstasy for misery: “I’m incredibly and sensationally not well.” The only rival to his hypochondriac obsession is his inveterate desire to have a physician in the family because this would mean free ministration and medicine. So he will marry off his beautiful daughter Angelique (graceful Shannon Taylor) to the ridiculously bewigged, powdered, rouged, and buckled sot Thomas Diafoirerhoea, rather than allow her to be wed to her beloved Cleante (Luke Humphrey), a handsome youth of splendid good health. The maiden has no real option: submit to her father’s heartless will or be dispatched to a nunnery. Not even the tart, sage intercession of Argan’s busybody maid Toinette (a spirited Brigit Wilson) or the sober, clear-eyed advice of his brother Beralde (calm, collected, eloquent Ben Carlson) seems to matter. Argan’s new gold-digging wife Beline (a deliciously wicked Trish Lindstrom) would be utterly delighted if Angelique dared her father and is disinherited as a consequence because Beline would inherit all his money and property.

Of course, things get complicated, and Argan eventually learns his humbling lesson painfully (though Ouimette’s vulnerability as the character is less palpable than his broad comedy), Beline is exposed, and Angelique wins her Cleante. But there is a wry, severe trope in Richard Bean’s version of Moliere’s satire on medical humbug and the fools who subscribe to it. The trope comes at the end, unfolding as part of a play-within-a-play. All the elaborate trappings that director Antoni Cimolino deploys—the theatrical warmups; the comedies-ballets; the absurd chorus of black-clad medical charlatans singing pig Latin and English verse while wielding terrifying clamps, saws, and enema injector; and the sudden meta-theatrical ending where Argan morphs into the dying Moliere—are meant to add to the potency of the satire and redeem the broad frenzied farce. In this instance, Cimolino is clearly following in the line of the late Jean Gascon and the late Richard Monette, both of whom had irrepressible Gallic zest for comic excess. Most of the time, the approach works, but success comes at a price. The prologue goes on a bit too long, as does the introduction of Louis XIV and his elaborate chair facing the stage antics.

This is a calculated device. Moliere was probably a hypochondriac himself, and his sharp mockery of the medical profession earned him the cold scorn of the very targets he attacked. On the night of his fourth performance as Argan, Moliere suffered a serious heart attack and died later that evening, after the doctors were unable or unwilling to save him. And so, Stephen Ouimette’s Argan collapses and passes away in the big bed that dominates the stage most of the time, as the mood and temperature of the play change. Cimolino’s staging makes the irony emphatic. The question is whether this sudden trope trips up the comic gears, undoing all the fun or whether audiences will appreciate the meta-theatrical innovation.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

Book by Joseph Stein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bartlett Sher
At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York. Open run.

¥DANNY BURSTEIN DANNY BURSTEIN (Tevye) Photos by Joan Marcus

¥DANNY BURSTEIN
DANNY BURSTEIN
(Tevye)
Photos by Joan Marcus

Despite its obvious concessions to commercial Broadway fare—syrupy sentimentality, vaudevillian ethnic comedy, romance streaked with melancholy, heroic resignation—Fiddler on the Roof is a sturdy musical classic that bears repeated reimagining. Bartlett Sher’s version honours every major aspect of the musical, and though the Tevye I saw at a recent matinee (when Danny Burstein was on hiatus) lacked the serious edge and danger of a great actor, the show’s ebullience and affective power came through to a heart-stirring conclusion.

What is especially thrilling about Sher’s production is its innovative style. Of course, Tevye remains a stage incarnation of Sholem Aleichem’s fictional Jewish milkman in a fictional shtetl named Anatevka, and, of course, the Russian pogroms are a historical fact, and, of course, Tevye remains hen-pecked and anxious about the marital prospects for his five daughters and the survival of tribal tradition. And he continues to wag his finger and shake his fist at God while forever misquoting the Old Testament and struggling to see all sides of a proposition. And, of course, he is especially concerned about finding and maintaining a balance rather like a fiddler on a roof.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Photos by Joan Marcus

But his Anatevka in this version (designed by Michael Yeargan) has an abstract quality that transcends realism while, paradoxically, fortifying the all-too-human qualities of the fable. Its frame is a bare stage with a grey brick wall at the rear and a name-sign hanging forlornly against the emptiness. Tevye, book in hand, stands in a red parka, as if he were mentally revisiting what once was his own folk story. Then he doffs his jacket, pulls out his prayer shawl from under his vest, and the emblematic fiddler (a superb Jesse Kovarsky) strikes up a solo to start the first ensemble musical number. This is the first electrifying jolt—“Tradition”—with the villagers rising as if out of the ground and advancing downstage. The sequence is almost surrealistic—as is the set design where the village is often evoked in free-floating sections of homes suspended in a sky of purple and deep blue so evocative of Chagall.

Hofesh Shechter’s choreography pays due homage to Jerome Robbins’s original but charts its own distinctive style with sinuous patterns described by twirls and upturned hands that seem to implore as well as affirm their difficult universe. “To Life” is a virtuoso piece, demarcating differences in Russian and Anatevkan physical movement. The wedding “Bottle Dance” is Robbins redux to a degree but there is a wonderful ecstasy that frames it, and there is much free-wheeling stomping, hand waving, and swaying that seem to inspire Tevye’s own light-footedness. Even the hilarious “Tevye’s Dream” has a colour and surrealistic verve not always found in other productions.

Michael Bernardi (son of Herschel, one of the most famous Broadway Tevyes) literally steps into his father’s stage boots, without quite filling the role. He has a light texture, a light voice, and a sweet innocence that make it seem as if he was moving mainly on the surface of the famous role. His comedy lacks definition because it is chiefly low key, and his lack of stage weight denies Tevye some of his edgy gravitas. Bernardi is a relatively young Tevye (though not the first of this kind) and there is a certain charm in his milkman. His formidable wife Golde is performed to a tee by equally formidable but fully human Jessica Hecht, who turns what could simply be a stereotypical shrew or spitfire into a bone-weary housewife and mother with a face that maps her anxiety and forbearance. Fierce yet poignant, Hecht is the best Golde in memory. Her duet with Bernardi’s Tevye (“Do You Love Me?”) is delicately moving.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Photos by Joan Marcus

Tevye’s daughters go through their pre-ordained comic, romantic, and dramatic paces without vocal faltering, though their acting is not of the highest quality. Ben Rappaport makes a fine Perchik, the young firebrand socialist student, and Adam Kantor a wonderfully timorous Motel, the tailor of woebegone looks, quivering fear, who can’t dive under a horseless wagon fast enough to escape Tevye’s intimidating rage. As the gossipy matchmaker Yente, Alix Korey has a flinty voice and a hard face, and she delivers her ironies with throwaway assurance.

The musical’s set pieces (especially “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset”) are performed with heart-stopping beauty, one lit by candles, the other against a painted backdrop of warm light by Donald Hodder, who washes the rear brick wall with a chilly blue-grey for the final melancholy scenes when the villagers turn into exiles, slowly leaving their homes for new worlds.

 

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

by Lee Hall
Directed by Declan Donnellan
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 16, 2016

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Shakespeare has been singularly unfortunate in many of his tinkers and tailors who have operated out of his age and time to cut him down to size and take the mystique out of his myth. Shakespeare in Love, both on film and now on stage, take him down many notches to groundling level, representing him as an awful literary stumblebum who needs the collective help of assorted tavern habitues to help him with a bad case of writer’s block or the individual help of Kit Marlowe who does not resent in the slightest being plagiarized by a verbally clumsy upstart. Despite the considerable cachet of Tom Stoppard (responsible for the screenplay in collaboration with Marc Norman), and the undeniable colour, verve, and virtuosity of Dame Judi Dench as Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe, as well as an undeserved number of Oscars, the film failed to charm me overall. I could not believe Gwyneth Paltrow as an Elizabethan, either in her female self as Viola de Lesseps or in her male stage disguise in the Rose Theatre, and I certainly am not moved, charmed, or impressed by Declan Donnellan’s production, in which Shannon Taylor is more concerned with her English accent than with characterization and texture.

Luke Humphrey (centre) as Will Shakespeare with members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Luke Humphrey (centre) as Will Shakespeare with members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

The stage version is virtually a carbon copy of the plot and characters of the film. Our Will here is reported to have some potential, as he struggles with a sonnet and then a play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter that he has promised to two rival theatres. He meets beautiful Viola de Lesseps who yearns for a stage career (even though this is outlawed for women of the era), falls in love, suffers complications, but overcomes his writer’s block. The stage version has limited value: a triple-level section of the Rose Theatre, with movable parts; a swashbuckling moment or two; a romance between its young, callow Will and Viola (disguised as a boy in Henslowe’s company); lute music and ballads; and winning performances by Karen Robinson as Nurse (a forerunner of Juliet’s), Sarah Orenstein as regal Elizabeth (avoiding any imitation of Dame Judi), Tom McCamus as pragmatic but tyrannical Fennyman, Stephen Ouimette as comically frustrated Henslowe, and a dog named Spot (who gives rise to the predictable joke: “Out, damned spot!”). Luke Humphrey is sweet, innocent, sometimes too much of a dunderhead as Shakespeare, and he is forced to enlist Marlowe as his Cyrano when attempting to woo Viola under a balcony. Impossible to reconcile him with the Shakespeare of the great plays. The rest is grist to the broadly comic mill. Brad Hodder as Ned Alleyn and Steve Ross as Burbage provide no more than a single facet of characterization, and others are used as jokey references to characters and lines of dialogue from the real Shakespeare in his time. Swarthy complexioned Saamer Usmani is a flamboyant Marlowe, whom he plays lightly and busily on his feet. There are inside jokes, of course: a Boatman (Mike Nadajewski) who eagerly offers his massive play to Shakespeare; hapless amateurs auditioning for a role at the Rose; Tillney, the censorious Master of Revels, acting like Malvolio; complaints about the recycling of Verona as setting; and all-too-recognizable lines from some of the Bard’s most famous plays. In the baldest terms, this show is the dumbing down of Shakespeare that is only half as entertaining as Something Rotten!, a far better parody of musicals and Shakespeare, and far more energetic and colourful.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 23, 2016

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music represents the three smiles (on youth, adult fools, and old age) with a somewhat Shakespearean sense of dreamlike but rueful comedy, and moves elegantly on the surface of emotion, exposing what lies under social masks and theatrical disguises in a twilit world. The score and lyrics afford glimpses into a shadowy, illusory world of romance, with Sondheim following but also taking off from the world of operetta because he is too daring a composer to miss opportunities for cynicism and sexual tension. The musical focusses on characters summoned to a weekend in a summer house, where young and old lovers intersect, and where lovers’ misunderstandings, jealousies, disguises, and duels combine in a single romantic entity. Widower-lawyer Frederick has a teenage, virginal wife, Anne, who is suddenly drawn to her young stepson Henrik, a musician and candidate for the priesthood. Frederick is himself still secretly in love with Desiree, a famous stage actress, who is, in fact, the mother of their love-child, Fredrika (a gender change from the original version). But Desiree also has another married admirer, Count Magnus, whose wife Charlotte is a friend to Frederick’s young second wife. Then there is also a sensual maid, Petra, who lusts after young Henrik. Hormones rage under moonlight, mixed couples are mixed up in complications, and the ways of this world are observed by the hostess, Madame Armfeldt, in her wheelchair, with the comfort of wine in a Swedish white night.

Gary Griffin’s production has some charm, comedy, and romance, but it is bedevilled by an inexplicably ugly set design by Debra Hanson who has placed copper-coloured smokestacks in the background and uses oversized wrought iron gates for the chateau, thereby ruining romantic ambience. Her costumes are only minimally interesting: the Lebeslieder quintet is all in deadening black with some glittering gold accents; Count Carl-Magnus resembles a stock figure out of Gilbert and Sullivan; and in one of the most romantic sequences at the chateau, all the principal women wear off-white or beige, creating visual blandness.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (background: Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman) in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (background: Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman) in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Fortunately, the orchestra and singers are generally fine, emphasizing the airiness of Sondheim’s waltzes and the sophistications of the composer’s brilliant frivolousness, delicacy, and drama. Musicologists can offer useful analyses of Sondheim’s leitmotifs and his use of popular musical models, such as the sarabande, polonaise, mazurka, and gigue, while explaining how many of the songs are trios or duets or deal with love triangles, and how nearly everything is in triple form and content. The passionate theatregoer, however, can be entertained by the tale itself and its characters’ foibles. There are fine performances by Sara Farb as promiscuous Petra, Ben Campbell as courtly, witty, boasting and complaining Frederik, Gabriel Antonacci as conflicted and confused Henrik, and Yanna McIntosh as Desiree (who scores in the famous “Send in the Clowns” but whose singing voice is otherwise not choice). Juan Chioran scores comic points as the foolishly pompous Count but his movement is stiff, while Alexis Gordon’s girlish Anne is better in song than in acting, and Cynthia Dale is glamorous but superficial as Charlotte, failing to convince us that every day is a little death for her. Rosemary Dunsmore’s Madame Armfeldt is wry and wise but somewhat lacking in tart cynicism. She is scarcely as old as she needs to be, having outlived all her illusions “by centuries.” So, overall, the production avoids being remote or cold but it merely gestures at stings in the heart and head.

SWEENEY TODD

By Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
At the Festival Theatre, July 30-October 19, 2016

Ben Campbell (Sweeeney Todd) and Marcus Nance (Judge Turpin) (photo: David Cooper)

Ben Campbell (Sweeeney Todd) and Marcus Nance (Judge Turpin)
(photo: David Cooper)

 

Jackie Maxwell bids farewell as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival with a strong production of Sweeney Todd that she directs with aplomb. This gory, soaring opera is one of the most powerful of American musicals, and it exposes awful passions in psychic caverns with almost perverse ecstasy. A supersized tale of a man who seeks revenge against those who destroyed his family and sent him to prison in Australia on a trumped up charge, Sweeney Todd exploits Victorian penny dreadful material to eerie and macabre effect. Maxwell’s version is actually less bloody than most earlier versions because, without avoiding the libretto’s exposure of homicidal rage, her primary focus is on the obsessions of figures caught in conundrums of sex and death. Set in what seems to be a dreary, decaying industrial building with peeling walls, corroded pipes, and broken glass windows (as designed by Judith Bowden, whose costumes are also seedy and coarse for the most part), the production refuses the sort of hulking set that dominated and somewhat shrank the human drama at its core. This one does not avoid Darwinian class struggle or Dickensian horror, but instead of expressing its social critique in block capitals, it elects to concentrate on universal internal demons.

The audience still hears a funereal organ, the screech of a factory whistle, and a low Gothic rumble of chords. Victorian London is still a big black pit filled with people who are full of shit. And you imagine rats scurrying into holes. But the sinister presentiments are not accented with lurid red lighting—until very late in the story, and the overall vision is very much one of corruption. Alan Brodie’s lighting creates macabre ambience, while Valerie Moore’s choreography sets the flashback rape of Todd’s wife to a minuet at a masked ball. The Beggar Woman remains an ugly, scarred wench with raging carnal lust. And Sweeney is undoubtedly “an artist with a knife.” But instead of being a Brechtian symbol or an exaggerated figure out of Grand Guignol, he is unmistakably human. Ben Campbell does not play him with a chalky face or with exaggerated raccoon eyes. He plays him life-size, with just the skin of dignity covering a seething interior. Of course, this Todd is wronged by his society, and of course, he is bloodthirsty, but he makes us feel the immense hurt he has felt for fifteen years of harsh exile and for his ruined life. And with Corrine Koslo, as his bantam-weight Mrs. Lovett, the maker of the worst pies in London, theirs is a very human tale of struggle, devastated innocence, thwarted ambition, savage exploitation, and lost love twisted into hate. Neither of these marvellous performers is a strong singer, but in this instance, what would otherwise be an almost crippling flaw is mitigated by their extraordinarily moving acting. And it is moving because it is truthful.

Sweeney Todd is often presumed to be superhuman. But he is not. He is scary and even monstrous, but he is also heroic, a product and an enemy of the society that shaped him. His killings as barber with his glinting knives have a mechanical efficiency (here somewhat compromised by an awkward barber chair that does not slide its victims effortlessly into Mrs. Lovett’s raging furnace), but he only turns into a devil because of the devils who have betrayed him, especially sadomasochistic Judge Turpin (strongly portrayed and sung by Marcus Nance in his deep, rich, black bass), and the mercurial Beadle (Jay Turvey in a full-blooded performance). Campbell, therefore, entices us into his performance, showing us a real man with a shockingly human face. And his singing voice is at the very least competently bass-baritone, with clear articulation and deep feeling as he moves from gentle melody for Sweeney’s aching longings for peace to staccato intensity with sharp breaks to mark how his life has been cruelly interrupted.

As for Corrine Koslo, her Mrs. Lovett is, in several ways, superior to that of the much beloved Angela Lansbury, because it is not mainly or even largely a vaudevillian turn with English music-hall humour and exaggeration. Koslo shows us a woman who uses any means at her disposal to survive her Victorian horror of poverty. She also shows us a woman who can love, who can be ruefully yearning, and desperately but fatally in love with Todd. So, the actress scores an immense double. She triumphs in the comic numbers: she turns “The Worst Pies in London” into a savagely funny battle against flies, dust, and resisting dough while skilfully negotiating the witty rhymes, alliteration, and vaguely lewd suggestions; she revels in her duet with Todd about different pie fillings (“A Little Priest”), filled with puns and lighthearted playfulness despite the gruesome premise; and she strikes rare notes of deranged wistfulness in “By the Sea” that gives her comedy palpable human weight and vulnerability. In other words, Koslo achieves what no other actress has matched: a perfect blending of wry, black comedy and ruefulness.

Maxwell’s production manages to find the ultimate Angst in the fable by showing how humour and violence are dichotomies that can be harnessed together without trivializing horror. The production does not wink at melodrama: the beautiful lyricism of the Johanna-Anthony Hope romance is excellently captured by Kristi Frank and Jeff Irving, while Andrew Broderick renders a very fine, poignant portrait of the simple-minded, forlorn Tobias, the pie-shop assistant. The only performance that is underpowered is Patty Jamieson’s Beggar Woman, but the actress acts well, and there are other strong compensations, such as Kyle Blair’s comically venal mountebank Pirelli, and a generally strong ensemble that (apart from the “City on Fire” sequence) seals the final impression of mentally disturbed inmates of Fogg’s Asylum. The feverish chant in an almost mythic ballad establishes the torment and the tragedy of Sweeney Todd.

Finally, there are two other aspects of the production that warrant applause: the 16-member orchestra under the baton of Paul Sportelli that eloquently negotiates all of Sondheim’s leitmotifs and musical range of echoes, inversions, parodies, and provocations; and Jackie Maxwell’s superb ability to tell the story clearly, without special effects, but with piercing force as a musical about fatal obsessions. The libretto is undeniably schizophrenic, but this production surmounts this troubling quality, not by denying it but by embracing it as an enthralling dichotomy of laughter and suffering, blood and tears.