I’ve had a couple of really close shaves with Sweeney Todd of late.
Last spring, Talk is Free Theatre produced a promenade production of this 1979 musical by legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim staged in the passageways and among the pews of an old church in Toronto’s east end; it could accommodate just 44 audience members a night – and I just squeezed in to one of its final performances.
Now, this fall, Plain Jane Theatre Company is putting on the tale of the bloodthirsty barber and his pie-making partner in cannibalistic crime in the 60-seat CO*LAB art space in downtown Edmonton (to Nov. 20). I snuck in last week to see Kate Ryan’s production, the conceit of which is that the show is being performed by workers at a meat-processing factory in the cramped quarters of their break-room. (What kind of meat they process is left unsettlingly vague.)
Intimate and immersive productions of plays and musicals have been a trend for a long time now. But part of me remains skeptical of the practice – in particular when it involves staging a well-known show.
Sweeney Todd was last seen in Toronto and Edmonton in 2,000- and 750-seat venues, respectively; it can draw a crowd, so why limit the audience size so drastically?
Well, sometimes, up-close-and-personal productions make a convincing argument for themselves on aesthetic grounds.
I didn’t feel that was the case with Talk is Free Theatre’s Sweeney Todd directed by Mitchell Cushman (though others, obviously, disagreed as it won five Dora Awards); the shuffling of the audience from space to space added nearly an hour’s running time to a show that’s best clean-cut – and, on many of the stops, the acoustics were muddy or voices were drowned out by instruments. I would have rather seen the same cast in a 200-seat theatre and stayed put.
Plain Jane’s production, on the other hand, really hit the spot for me.
Sheldon Elter’s Sweeney was truly scary to witness up close. Indeed, I’ve never seen the part acted with more depth – the nearness of the performance allowing me to see the various shades of the character’s grief, and how much pain there was under his rage even at its most murderous.
The small space was great too for Elter’s voice – allowing him sing some of his lower lines in a conflicted, confidential whisper that made me feel complicit with his crimes.
It was a pleasure to be introduced without amplification to some young local voices complementing Elter’s Sweeney and Kristi Hansen’s lustful Mrs. Lovett. I appreciated, in particular, Erin Selin and Josh Travnik’s fresh approaches to the characters of Johanna and the Beadle, respectively.
A couple of things didn’t quite work for me in this teeny-tiny Sweeney mind you – like the casting of the same singer as both Pirelli and the Old Woman. But I got chills down my spine when Sweeney turned on me directly from a couple of feet away – “You sir, how about a shave?” – like I never have before at a larger-scale production.
Treemonisha grows back in Toronto
TO Live, the Toronto city agency that manages several large venues, announced its January to June programming as I was putting this newsletter together on Tuesday morning. It was surprising to find a huge Luminato Toronto Festival announcement at the bottom of this long list of concerts and dance presentations.
Treemonisha, a much-anticipated new version of American ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s legendary and semi-lost opera, will now have its world premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts from June 6 to 17 as part of Luminato.
A major project spearheaded by Toronto’s Volcano and produced in association with the Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Feast, this reimagined adaptation features a new story and libretto by Leah-Simone Bowen and Cheryl L. Davis; the production will be directed by Soulpepper’s Weyni Mengesha and conducted by Kalena Bovell – according to the release, the first time a Black woman has conducted an opera in Canada.
This Treemonisha – described in TO Live’s release as “one of the few classical music pieces about the immediate post-slavery era written by a Black person who actually lived through it” – has already been written about at length in the Washington Post, ahead of what was supposed to be its world premiere at Stanford Live in April of 2020.
Ross Manson, of Volcano, tells me that, following its world premiere in Toronto, Treemonisha is set to tour the world. “There’s a lot of interest across the U.S. and the U.K. as well,” he says. “We’re in the middle of negotiating all those contracts right now.”
It’s, unfortunately, in keeping with the Luminato’s recent perplexing approach to publicity that the most significant show the festival has produced in years has been announced with no fanfare whatsoever.
Reviews you can use
& Juliet, Canadian playwright and screenwriter David West Read’s Shakespeare-inspired jukebox musical based around the Max Martin catalogue, opens on Broadway on Thursday.
I’ll be interested to read what the New York critics make of it; here’s my review of the production from when it played a pre-Broadway run in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Notable openings this week
East Van Panto (Globe and Mail columnist Marsha Lederman’s favourite holiday tradition) is back in Vancouver this week with The Little Mermaid. The family show with new music by Veda Hille runs at the Cultch from Nov. 16 to Jan. 1.
Cher Tchekhov, legendary Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay’s latest hit, has a run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from Nov. 17 to 19. (This visiting TNM production is in French.)
A couple of classic mystery/thrillers hit the stage in Alberta this week. Murder on the Orient Express is at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary until Dec. 17, while Deathtrap is at the Varscona Theatre in Edmonton in Teatro Live production from Nov. 18 to Dec. 4.
What the Globe is reviewing this week
Post-Democracy, a play by Hannah Moscovitch that premiered in a filmed form during the pandemic, is having its live in-person debut at the Tarragon Theatre (to Dec. 4).
Our Place, a new play by Kanika Ambrose about a pair of newcomers to Canada working under the table at a jerk pork restaurant in Scarborough, runs from Nov. 18 to Dec. 3 at Theatre Passe Muraille. This is a co-production with Cahoots Theatre.