For the penultimate show of its 2016-2017 Broadway Series, the Paramount Theatre offers a visually slick, dramatically honed down version of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Courtesy of an impressive cast, the production succeeds in staking out unique territory in a popular show, even if he paring back of some plot elements leaves a few emotional loose ends.
Jeffrey Kmiec's set makes full use of the Paramount's cavernous space. Kmiec builds up from floor to the top of the proscenium and out to the wings. The center column comprises Sweeney's shop sandwiched between a disused third level, blanked out by a metal accordion door, and Mrs. Lovett's bakehouse oven below. Stage left and right of the second and third levels act as Johanna's room, the mad house, and walkways housing the dead-eyed London bystanders.
On the ground floor, a steep set of narrow steps accommodates the ensemble for the larger group numbers. Down on the apron, sections of the stage rise up on X-lifts to act as shop tables, another space inside Judge Turpin's house, and so on. The set manages to seem both towering and claustrophobic, though its success is not unqualified.
Rather than Sweeney's victims being tipped down a chute, as is typical in most productions, Kmiec also uses an X-lift to lower the entire chair into the bakehouse oven. The process is slow enough to be dramatically disruptive, undermining the otherwise impressive steam effect accompanying the ear-piercing whistle as the oven's fire roars to life.
Part of Director/Choreographer Jim Corti's vision for this production seems to be a particular use of the ensemble to throw the main cast into sharper relief. Rather than employing the supporting cast for stiff, Greek Chorus-like commentary, Corti has the ensemble deliver their lines with bloodthirsty glee.
Although this involves costumes that are somewhat visually piecemeal, (design by Theresa Ham) and occasionally over-the-top lighting, (design by Nick Belley and Jesse Klug) on the whole, the approach is interesting. It sets the main characters' vicious deeds against an unrelentingly cruel human backdrop.
This technique is clearest and most successful in the staging and choreography for "God, That's Good!," where they form a jerking, frenzied mob that's almost zombie-like. The effect disturbing enough to infuse the macabre domestic life of the main characters with some genuine pathos.
Corti's approach to the ensemble gives his very talented main cast some very interesting material to work with. Nelly Lovett's history with Benjamin Barker, and more importantly, with his wife Lucy, receives far more attention in this production.
Her run-ins with the Beggar Woman are deliberately fraught from the start, building to a revamped ending where it's she, not Judge Turpin, who clings to life long enough to claw at Nelly's skirts as she struggles to hide the body before Sweeney can recognize his supposedly dead wife. In addition to heightening the drama at the play's climax, throughout, Mrs. Lovett's cruelty to the woman is suffused with real fear that her lie will be revealed and her "fair shot" at life undone.
Credit for the novel take on an often-produced play surely goes to Corti, but the greater achievement is in its execution by his actors. Bri Sudia (Nelly Lovett) moves with ease from the broad comedy of the "Worst Pies in London," to the sweetly daft optimism of "By the Sea," to the more complex emotional beats of "Poor Thing."
In a few places, the arrangements are not quite kind to Sudia's upper register, but the way she inhabits the role more than makes up for minor vocal shortcomings. As Mrs. Lovett's counterpart in this production, Emily Rohm's (Beggar Woman/Lucy) clear, towering soprano is appropriately imposing.
In the title role, Paul-Jordan Jansen manages to explore the production's genuine emotion while lending an operatically villainous flair to the role with his powerful voice. If there's a downside to Corti's diminished interested in secondary characters like Anthony and Johanna, it's that the real sorrow Jansen conveys when he learns of his family's fate never finds any closure in a somewhat rushed ending.
Anthony Norman's performance as Toby is more successful when the urchin is shilling for his dubious role models than it is either in "Not While I'm Around" or when he discovers the main ingredient in Mrs. Lovett's pies. However, this seems more attributable to the backgrounding of most of the minor characters than to any flaw in the actor.
The same might be said of Patrick Rooney (Anthony) and Cecilia Iole (Johanna), both of whom are solid vocally and dramatically, though they can't quite overcome a rushed approach to the romantic subplot.
Matt Deitchmann's brief turn as Pirelli gives the show exactly the comic relief it needs, as does Craig W. Underwood's performance as the Beadle.
"Sweeney Todd" runs through March 19 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. For tickets or information, call 630-896-6666 or visit ParamountAurora.com