Watching a high school production always provides something interesting. I don’t go to a school production expecting Broadway-caliber stagecraft so I’m often surprised by a) talent that exceeds my expectations and b) missteps or deficiencies that happen in ways that provide insight into the theatrical process.
I saw Maggie Walker’s production of “Sweeney Todd” on Thursday and it delivered everything an audience member could have expected and more. The show only ran last weekend so unfortunately it’s too late to see it if you missed it. (But I hear from very reliable sources that there is another quality high school show around: a collection of one-acts called “An Evening of the Absurd” at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg that runs through this coming weekend – check it out!)
You really have to start at the top when considering these shows. “Sweeney” was directed by Matt Polson so you know a talented and experienced hand was at the helm. (ARGS’s “Evening” is directed by Morrie Piersol, also no slouch.) Polson clearly had a vision of a dank and spooky London underbelly that he wanted to realize on stage and he succeeded. One of the highlights for me (and something not uncommon in a high school production) was the commitment of the chorus. To a member, they imbued every mention of “the demon barber of fleet street” with as much sinister vigor as they could.
I was impressed with the level of male talent in the production. “Glee” notwithstanding, talented, singing boys willing to commit time to the stage are still not that common in high school. I thought Andrew Morton did a fine job as the title characer, Jacob Wilson was a stand-out as Toby (how can you not melt at the song “Not While I’m Around”?), and Daniel Burruss had a creepy old man vibe about him unusual in one so young. The star of the show for me was Annie Hulcher as Mrs. Lovett, who has a great strong voice and was appropriately creepy but also relatable as the ethics-free Mrs. Lovett.
The set designed by Rebekah Barnett was remarkable for a high school production – particularly the mechanism Sweeney uses to send his “customers” on their way – as was the lighting design by Lucie Hanes. The only place where the production kind of let me down was in the “beggar woman” reveal. To me, this is the lynchpin of the tragedy (and what a devastating tragedy it is) and it didn’t quite come across as big as I’d have liked it. I mentioned this moment in the show to the suave and talented Stephen Ryan who I saw on Sunday and he suggested that maybe in high school, actors don’t quite have the life experience to embody such a massive moment of inadvertent self-destruction. I think that’s probably a wise insight.
However, that one moment did not significantly detract from a production that was affecting in most other ways. Sondheim is a pretty high hurdle to leap and the Maggie Walker crew cleared it nicely, particularly for a still aspiring young troupe.
I had the occasion to talk to Mr. Ryan because I ran into him at the final performance of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Theatre IV. I’m glad I got to see this wacky little show before it closed and I’ll tell you why tomorrow.