The Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s classically staged Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, offers a night full of stellar vocal performances and unexpected depth of acting in an often terrific but sometimes clumsy production.
Damian Gravino gives Sweeney Todd, the former barber returning to London from exile in search of revenge, a smoldering undertone of evil often absent in amateur stagings of Stephen Sondheim’s popular work. Gravino, along with Alene Aroustamian’s vibrant portrayal of Mrs. Lovett, leads a vocally deep ensemble cast into the bowels of industrial-age London. As strong as they are individually, together Aroustamian and Gravino are eminently watchable and bring a humanity and immediacy to the action of the show that few amateur productions are capable of achieving.
They are supported all around by strong performers. Emile Joy Lethcoe gives Johanna a playful charm, nicely complementing Bryan Vickery’s eager and earnest Anthony Hope. Their voices work beautifully together, and their chemistry and timing are nearly perfect during the show’s most complex musical moments, especially “Kiss Me” and its reprise. Mary Zastrow brings heat and intensity to the role of the Beggar Woman, giving “City on Fire” a needed sense of urgency and making the show’s climax all the more heartbreaking. Keith Barletta as an affable Pirelli, Marc Goldstein as Judge Turpin (excellent in his “Pretty Women” duet with Gravino), Randle Rankin as a refreshingly empathetic Beadle, and Jefferson Lanz as Jonas Fogg round out the supporting players — save for one.
When Frankie Rodruiguez’s Tobias Ragg makes his entrance during “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” in the first act, he is an eager if naive little boy scamming to make a penny or two and to please his master. Where Rodriguez takes his character, and his transformation in doing so, is perhaps this production’s highlight. Director David Ralphe obviously spent considerable time with his actors, and it shows throughout this cast; and in the final moments of the show Rodriguez’s portrayal of Tobias is heart-rending.
Unfortunately, much as Sweeney Todd’s 19th-century London residents struggle with their city and its challenges, the performers here struggle with their set, their props and sometimes the difficulties of the music itself. Clumsy scene transitions and overly long set changes lead to dead moments onstage, and more than once, members of the cast bumped into or knocked over furniture or set pieces. At a key moment, a prop seemed to be missing, momentarily flummoxing the performers, and a late entrance by the chorus in the second act made for an awkward transition back into a key scene in Act 2.
Many of these kinks will be worked out as the company becomes more comfortable with the set and the props during the course of the run, but they did detract notably from a Sweeney Todd of otherwise highest quality.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, through July 13. Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, Simi Valley. For more information, call 583-7900 or visit www.simi-arts.org.