Expertly sung, technically polished, thrilling in moments--but also safe and bloodless
WHAT BECOMES OF A “Sweeney Todd” in which the spotlight burns more brightly not for the titular demon barber of Fleet Street but for his sidekick, Mrs. Lovett?
That is the dilemma implicit in Repertory Philippines’ production of the Stephen Sondheim musical masterpiece, otherwise agreeably staged and now running at Onstage Greenbelt 1 until Dec. 13. Audie Gemora is in excellent voice as Sweeney; his is a proficient, assured performance of a most challenging role. It’s not bad at all, only... small.
Next to the incandescent Menchu Lauchengo-Yulo as Mrs. Lovett--in what must rank as an unqualified peak in the actress’ 25-year-plus career in musical theater--Gemora’s measured turn feels neither urgent nor transcendent, lacking what the British critic Michael Billington calls “that most exciting of theatrical qualities: danger.”
Perhaps it’s not entirely Gemora’s fault. The absence of any sense of malevolence extends beyond his methodical Sweeney. He’s missing, for instance, a convincing villain to rage against.
Roger Chua’s Judge Turpin, more avuncular grandpa than lecherous tyrant, is weakly played. In “Pretty Women”--essentially a snapshot of the dark magic at the heart of “Sweeney Todd” with its brilliant blend of terror and tenderness, malice and sweetness--Chua is swamped by Gemora, a lopsided match that deflates a melodic highlight in Sondheim’s unapologetically modernist score.
Neither the faux showman Pirelli, whom Robie Zialcita turns into a cuddly chap, nor Robbie Guevara’s Beadle (with his curiously strained vocals, especially in “Ladies in Their Sensitivities”) supply the requisite frisson of menace in their confrontations with Gemora’s Sweeney.
Instead, that undertow of dread, of something not quite right in the fog and filth of this corner of Victorian London, comes from two unexpected sources whose sharp turns help foreshadow the unraveling of the melodrama: Marvin Ong’s superb Tobias and Liesl Batucan’s unnerving Beggar Woman.
Ong, a young actor making his professional debut in this production, lends the show a warm, heart-clutching moment with a beautifully sung “Not While I’m Around.”
Two other actors make their mark with strong voices: Franco Laurel as Anthony and Lena McKenzie as Johanna. Alas, as young lovers they evince no chemistry. And McKenzie’s dulcet tones (in coloratura numbers such as “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”) are accompanied by poor diction; she is hardly intelligible.
In media interviews, Gemora, director Michael Williams (Baby Barredo co-directs) and company have repeatedly served assurances that this “Sweeney Todd” would be nothing like the operatically bloody Tim Burton movie version.
They are right--but they seem to have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Theirs is a bloodless “Sweeney Todd,” expertly sung, technically polished, thrilling in moments (in fact, a good number of moments; the chorus and the FILharmoniKA Orchestra under conductor Gerard Salonga both sound particularly voluptuous), but altogether safe and discreet--gripping mostly for the scale of the material and the care with which they have approached it.
It’s fair to cite Rep’s achievement here; no other local theater company today has the comparable skill and deep bench of musical talent to mount this juggernaut--“the Olympics of musical theater,” as Gemora has called it. It’s also fair to say the show needs to blaze more than merely glow; the pits of true tragedy currently escape this “Sweeney.”
With lines that excoriate London as “a hole in the world like a great black pit... filled with people who are filled with shit,” Sondheim had also yoked “Sweeney Todd” to a broader social backdrop. The barber’s murderous despair finds its momentum in the larger injustice of the privileged classes oppressing the poor.
That panorama isn’t evident in this “Sweeney.” Mio Infante’s utilitarian set of ramps, trusses and mobile platforms is good for graceful scene transitions. What it barely does, along with John Batalla’s sluggish rust-ochre lighting, is open up the environment or evoke the rank texture of a city where “the vermin of the world inhabit it/and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit.”
Nevertheless, these elements do seem of a piece with the production’s studied avoidance of Grand Guignol flourishes.
Which makes Gino Gonzales’ costumes all the more puzzling. In the face of this “Sweeney’s” earthy, realist tone, Gonzales reworked 19th-century English silhouettes into some sort of raggedy mad-harlequin motif drowning in retaso, ruffles and, in one scene, exposed hoops.
Theatrical, no doubt, but the overly art-directed look (especially on Mrs. Lovett--would this practical, perpetually busy woman really have time for such complicated garb?) flies in the face of the show’s largely austere complexion.
Lauchengco-Yulo can do away with her rococo costume, and she’d still be the best thing about this “Sweeney.” At a minimum, she and Gemora have much to teach their younger co-stars about proper articulation. Even in the most rapid-fire musical patter, the two veteran actors are exquisitely clear. Their scenes together are seamless.
This Mrs. Lovett isn’t played for laughs; her amoral wit emerges from a well of exuberant cunning, and Lauchengco-Yulo’s vigorous vocals and sly, charismatic attack make her Mrs. Lovett the most galvanizing, finely drawn character in this production.
That can’t be good news for Gemora, a more-than-capable actor with an eloquent baritone whose rather pinched performance the whole show seems to take its cue from.
A bolder vision, a Sweeney with darker depths and greater abandon, and this show will fly. Failing that, Sondheim would have to rewrite his opening lines--at least for Rep’s “Sweeney Todd.” “Attend the tale of Nellie Lovett” has a nice twisted ring to it.
[Photos courtesy of Girlie Rodis]
Rep’s “Sweeney Todd” runs until Dec. 13 at Onstage Greenbelt 1. For tickets and inquiries: 8870710, 8880887, 8919999. Visit www.repertory.ph or www.ticketworld.com.ph.
PLUS: More thoughts on Sweeney--
1. “This production ranks up there as one of the best of Repertory Philippines in recent years.” -- “'Sweeney Todd': A carnivorous love story”, SUJATA S. MUKHI, BusinessWorld
2. “Repertory Philippines outdid itself in terms of acting and production values.” -- “'Sweeney Todd' is deliciously perverse”, JULIA ALLENDE, www.pep.ph
3. “'Sweeney Todd' came out as an enthralling and compelling production. It's a 'must' see!” -- “Horror musical enthralls”, ROSALINDA L. OROSA, The Philippine Star