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Sweeney Todd gets a modern tweak

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LEA SALONGA As Mrs. Lovett in front of the pickup truck that serves as the centerpiece of set of Atlantis’ production of Sweeney Todd.

Theater Review
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
By Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim
Presented by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
Ongoing until October 27
The Theater at Solaire

BEFORE the show, I had explained a synopsis of Sweeney Todd to my teenage sister; one of the things I noted was that the story is set in Victorian England. Upon entering the theater, the first thing I noticed was the sound of heavy rain coming from the onstage. It was only during the creative presentation of show reminders (Turn off your cellphone!) that I noticed: “Wait! It’s set during the Industrial Revolution, right? Then why are there cars?”

The set design veers away from the 19th century as the action in director Bobby Garcia’s version of the tale of a vengeful barber take place in an area filled with abandoned cars.

In the show’s playbill, set design David Gallo explained how he followed Mr. Garcia’s vision. “Bobby had the idea that the 19th century hospital would have been converted into a parking structure at some point later in its life. He was very excited about having real cars with the remains of the asylum hidden below the lowest level of the garage.”

The stage is eye-catching — more so when Lea Salonga and Jett Pangan haughtily enter in a red vintage pickup truck where most of the action happens. It is manually maneuvered to accommodate scenes and blocking: the front of the pickup functions as a temporary hiding place and Mrs. Lovett’s meat grinder while cargo area at the back is Sweeney Todd’s barbershop.

To recap the story: After 15 years of exile, a vengeful Benjamin Barker returns to London, taking on the name of Sweeney Todd, seeking Judge Turpin who — lusting after Barker’s wife — had falsely convicted and exiled him. As the story develops, Sweeney Todd starts to murder his customers with a straight razor and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, processes their corpses into meat pies which become a hit in London.

Unfortunately, the montage of killings at the barbershop, with the lights turning red as Sweeney Todd’s victims die, then carefully step down from the back of the pickup, slowly walking (like a normal person, not zombie-like) to the large oven on stage right, initially made the audience laugh (this writer included).

Still, this awkward staging did not detract from the performances.

The tandem of Mr. Pangan and Ms. Salonga was a joy to watch (this was the first musical I had seen featuring both actors since Baby, The Musical in 2004). Mr. Pangan’s mysterious Sweeney Todd contrasts with Ms. Salonga’s mystic but perky Mrs. Lovett. I particularly enjoyed the Mrs. Lovett solo “By the Sea,” where she playfully fantasizes about living a life with Sweeney Todd. Ms. Salonga portrayed a character that is darker and the stark opposite the roles she is known for superbly.

Another show-stopper is Nyoy Volante’s Adolfo Pirelli, another barber. His take on Sweeney Todd’s competitor is hilarious, and his Italian accent was sexy. “The Contest (Shaving scene)” showcased his vocal versatility as the song required transitions from chest to falsetto.

Comical lines work smoothly with the musical’s thriller atmosphere. Ima Castro’s entrances as the beggar woman asking for alms made the audience giggle within otherwise dramatic scenes. All performers showed vocal prowess in shared musical numbers such as “The Ballad to Sweeney Todd” and “Johanna (Quartet).”

Sweeney Todd impressively closes the lineup of Stephen Sondheim musical in Metro Manila this year. I hope audiences get a chance to enjoy more of Sondheim in the coming years, as well as more of the darker (if perhaps not so morbid) materials from other writers and composers. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman

For tickets to Sweeney Todd, visit TicketWorld at (www.ticketworld.com.ph, 891-9999).

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