Smaller-scale “Sweeney Todd” proves 99-seat theater is alive, thriving in L.A

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Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography. INTIMATE VENUE: Mrs. Lovett (Alison England) tries to convince Sweeney (Douglas Ladnier) they can find a better life together.

Brentwood resident Kristin Towers-Rowles has been a life-long Stephen Sondheim fan, appearing in many of his well-known musicals at various theaters in Los Angeles.  She has taken her knowledge and love of the great composer’s masterwork, “Sweeney Todd”.   Utilizing the overwhelmingly talents of a cast and crew who are dedicated to presenting an excellent work.  I guarantee this ensemble piece proves that small 99-seat theaters are alive and thriving in Los Angeles.

“Sweeny Todd” runs April 10 to May 10 on Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. in the Monroe Forum at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, an easy train ride on the Metrolink from downtown Culver City.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, the Tony Award winning operatic musical “Sweeny Todd” is a tragicomic tale of murder, mayhem, and meat pies. The hauntingly chilling story explores love, loss and blood-soaked revenge handed out by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  After hard years in exile for a crime he didn’t commit, Sweeney (charismatic Douglas Ladnier whose skillful enunciation allows his every word to be understood – not an easy task for fast-paced Sondheim songs) returns to London hoping to re-start his life.  Instead he finds his wife dead and his daughter in the hands of the evil Judge Turpin, (Chuck McCollum) who shares the most intimate of secrets fueling his fury.

In his rage, Sweeney takes his revenge on the populace of London with the help of his wily neighbor; Mrs. Lovett (robust, rubber-faced comedienne Alison England).  Having lured his victims with a charming smile and the promise of the most excellent shave,  once seated in his reclining chair, Sweeney casually ends their lives with a flick of his razor (no blood is splattered, rather just the suggestion of it with each murder scene doused in red lighting).  Each is dispatched to the basement where the waiting Mrs. Lovett bakes them into the most delicious and popular meat pies in London. With the popularity of her shop, Mrs. Lovett hires an assistant to help with the dirty work, but shocked Tobias (curly-topped, highly animated Matt Steele) seals his fate when he complains about finding hair and fingernails in the meat pie filling.

Of course there is a love story running through all the bloodshed. Sweeney returned to London after being pulled from the water by Anthony (a young and handsome Alexander Jon), a sailor who never suspects the evil he has helped bring back home.  To complicate matters, Anthony falls in love with Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (lovely sprite Devon Davidson), setting up the path for the barber’s revenge.  One of the most beautiful songs in the show, “Johanna,” is often repeated to remind us that perhaps some good can come out of this seemingly brutal story.  It is always chilling, to say the least.

Kudos to Kendra Munger (the Beggar Woman, through whose eyes we are told the story), Craig McEldowney (the most proper Victorian Beadle Bamford) and Mark Rohner (the ultimate showman Pirelli), as well as each of the ensemble members who assist in creating the most glorious harmonies: Antonio Ardolino, Michael D’Elia, Melinda Ehrlich, Marty Feldman, Lena Gwendolyn Hill, Rachel Hirshee, Kelly Meyersfield, Hector S. Quintana and Anibal Silveyra.

“When we do something well known like Sweeny Todd, we like to approach the work from a completely fresh point of view,” said Erik Austin, Artistic Director of Kelrik Productions. That they certainly have done, seating the audience in a semi-circle around the intimate set designed for the small space by Erik Austin, allowing the audience to become part of the show rather than just watching it. When the Beggar Woman (who often remains seated within the audience), Sweeney or Mrs. Lovett reach out to engage those seated in the front row, it is understandable why many flinch (then laugh) at the possibility.

Towers-Rowles was drawn to Sondheim’s original impulse to make SWEENEY TODD a chamber musical as opposed to a large sweeping production that first hit Broadway in 1979.  Working closely with Broadway’s Stephanie Fredricks as Assistant Director, their collaboration works superbly in creating a beautiful and chilling show, with equal credit due to Musical Director Joe Lawrence, Choreographer/Lighting Designer Samantha Marie, and period-perfect Victorian Costume Design by Michael Mullen.  It is a struggle for me to find the right words to convey the magnificence of the entire production, which I hope all theater lovers in Los Angeles will flock to experience.

Tickets are $30 and may be purchased in advance by calling (818) 508 4200 or online at www.elportaltheatre.com. Seating is open and on a first come basis. Due to the show’s adult subject matter, it is required that audience members under the age of 17 bring a parent or guardian with them to the performance.  For more information about Kelrik Productions, please visit www.kelrikproductions.org.

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