I’ve seen many very satisfying theater productions in my 25-ish years in Central Indiana. But there are few that I would describe as “wildly ambitious.”
Some have taken chances with subject matter. Some have made bold casting choices. Some have attempted to lure audiences to previously untapped venues.
But “wildly ambitious”? That’s a rarity.
Let me explain why the term applies to the Actors Theatre of Indiana/Carmel Symphony Orchestra production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Feb. 21-22 at the Palladium).
First: The size and strength of the orchestra.
While ATI has a strong track record of professionally produced shows, the musical
side is usually handled by a handful of players. I get that. Budgets. Small spaces. And shows like “The Fantasticks” and “Chicago” can sound just fine with a small-ish comb in an intimate space.
But some shows demand a bigger sound. The two-piano recording of “The Most Happy Fella” collects dust in my CD collection and one of the big draws in my going to see the recent Broadway revival of “On the Town” was knowing it had a full orchestra.
For “Sweeney,” I count 31 CSO players in the program, along with Music Director Janna Hymes. For comparison, that’s more than the just-opened Broadway revival of “West Side Story.” Add in a battalion of singers from the Indianapolis Arts Chorale and you have stage full of sound, finely tuned to fill the hall.
Hot take: Music matters in most musicals. And that’s proven here. You don’t get goosebumps from a synthesizer. At least, I don’t.
Another example of this production’s ambition: The decision to stage a full version, not a concert version, of the show.
By that I mean, it doesn’t truncate the book, trim the tunes, or allow actors to carry around their scripts. Such script-carrying is usually a natural side effect of minimal rehearsal time and maximum stars for musical-theater-meets-symphony shows elsewhere. When the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra offered its concert versions of “Hairspray” and “Guys and Dolls” (both delightful), it brought in guest artists, seated them on stage, and kept staging to a minimum. Script books were a necessary burden.
Here, ATI offered a full rendition of “Sweeney”–which director Richard Roberts had previously staged in full in the smaller Studio Theatre back in 2016.
Yes, there were compromises. Set pieces were simple, which makes for a wan barber chair rendered even less impressive for not being part of a multi-story set (Sending bodies from barbershop to basement furnace required high suspension of disbelief). Substituting a trombone for a meat grinder may have seemed clever in rehearsal but proved awkward in performance. And I’m not certain that the uninitiated could follow some of the densely packed lyrics and actor doubling, which may have impacted their ability to pick up plot details.
Elsewhere, though, there was surprising clarity in the performances. This is my eighth or ninth encounter with “Sweeney” thanks to previous productions (including the original Broadway) and videos, but I was still pleased to see nuances I hadn’t noticed before.
Having leads who have tackled these parts before added welcome seasoning. Don Farrell’s Sweeney — a bit more George Hearn than Len Cariou — strongly delivered the man’s agony, his voice blending most powerfully with the orchestra on his “Epiphany.” Judy Fitzgerald seemed more self-aware than previous Mrs. Lovetts I’ve seen, leading to an interesting take on a character that could easily have been a cartoon. Although in strong voice, David Cunningham’s Tobias seemed more leading man than troubled youth while Tim Fullerton offered a fully committed, dangerously human Judge Turpin.
Katie Cowan Sickmeier’s costumes picked up much of the slack rendered by the necessary minimal set.
I look forward to the season announcements for both Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. I know full well how challenging it is to mount such ambitious programming, but I’m hoping to see another crossover on those lists.