JWR Articles: Live Event - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Director: Jackie Maxwell) - August 2, 2016
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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What on earth were they singing?

Poor Stephen Sondheim. The wizard of music and lyrics has had a bumpy ride this summer with Canada’s finest repertory companies. At Stratford, A Little Night Music was given a visually wonderful presentation but the key bit of artistic glue, “The Quintet,” never had a chance to demonstrate to the audience how truly wonderful their blend of the exacting harmonies actually was. At the Shaw, approximately 50% of the lyrics remained only for those with scores in their laps to decipher and savour.

The culprit in both cases (and in countless other theatres across North America) is the artistic trust’s decision to amplify some already very considerable voices with sound reinforcement. What on earth did Sondheim and the likes of his many collaborators—notably Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story—do without body mics at the premières of some of the finest musicals ever written?

In Jackie Maxwell’s production of the vengeful barber, the chorus at full cry might as well have been declaiming in Swahili; when Corrine Koslo (her performance as Mrs. Lovett was otherwise superb) turned on the vocal taps to “full”, I was forced to cover my ears on several occasions in order to mute the unintended stridency—Old Yeller indeed. Similarly, in the title role, Benedict Campbell’s few variances from pitch were, sadly, given far more prominence than if the mics had been switched off (ditto the men’s chorus in Act II; fortunately a marvellous slow-motion sequence in the vicinity helped to distract the ear and delight the eye).

Marcus Nance’s superior musical skills came to the fore as Judge Turpin, but could have been heard clear as a bell in the Court House Theatre if left to his own natural devices. Jay Turvey’s nuanced portrayal of The Beadle was another highlight that was in no danger of being lost in the shuffle had there been a power outage.

Here’s hoping music director Paul Sportelli will fight hard for an electron-free soundscape for future musicals; there is so much talent on the stage and in the pit that it’s a great shame not to hear them as originally conceived by the composers and lyricists. JWR

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