Seeing Central Piedmont Community College Theatre tackle "Sweeney Todd" Friday was like watching mid-sized Olympians hoist huge weights: You look on anxiously as they strain, then feel relief as they finally get the bulky thing aloft.
Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterwork would be heavy lifting for any group. Except for student productions by Northwest School of the Arts and the Student Theatre Guild of Theatre Charlotte, no one in Mecklenburg County has attempted "Sweeney" since the 1980s.
If you went to Friday's opening, you saw why that has been true, and why we're lucky to have "Sweeney" in front of us after so long. When it went right, it was touching. When it went wrong, it could be nerve-wracking. And it still had the power to shock us with a vision of corruption so bleak that cannibalism seemed a humorous, almost tolerable response. (Many people think the show indicts capitalism and/or the class system. I'm less sure.)
Todd is a barber back in the smoky, smoggy London of the 1840s after 15 years in Australia, where he has served prison time on a trumped-up charge.
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His wife is gone, debauched and driven mad by a judge and his accomplice, an unctuous beadle. Daughter Johanna, now of marriageable age, is the ward of that predatory judge. As Todd waits to cut those malefactors' throats, he dispatchers a blackmailer. And his friendly neighbor downstairs, Mrs. Lovett, can always use fresh meat for her pie shop....
Director Tom Hollis and set designers James Duke and Rebecca Primm have solved the logistical problems of this complex show. Set changes whisk by, and there's no wasted time in the three-hour evening.
The 10-person orchestra played sensitively for Drina Keen, who stepped in for music director Ellen Robison. The reduction from the Broadway forces let us hear individual lines - an angry trumpet, a mournful cello - in a way that made the music fresh, if less overwhelming. (That task fell to the hard-working chorus.)
At the same time, we were reminded that getting close counts for less in a Sondheim musical than in most others.
Rebecca Cook-Carter provided blunt, earthy humor as Mrs. Lovett, but she was lost musically. She cut lines short so she could catch a wheezing breath, approximated pitches and seemed overtaxed when she had numbers back to back.
Steven Jepson had superb diction, strong stage presence, a ringing voice and angry energy, which are all the title character needs at first. But Todd descends into bleak insanity, and Jepson never showed us lunacy. (Rage isn't madness.)
Erik D'Esterre was an unusually charismatic Anthony, who hopes to rescue Todd's daughter, but Sara Reinecke was apparently told to make Johanna a ninny of an ingenue.
Ashton Guthrie poured his heart into Tobias, the cruelly treated boy Mrs. Lovett manipulates, and Kevin Roberge was a suitably hissable judge - although including his self-flagellating solo, which is often cut, was a mistake: Nervous audience members sniggered at it.
One of the drawbacks of having CPCC tackle "Sweeney Todd" is that conservative playgoers may be unprepared for the material. There were a handful of walkouts Friday, and whoever invited a flock of middle schoolers made an error in judgment. But folks who stayed to the end got a fair taste of the musical that ranks among the greatest of the 20th century.
P.S. At least two walkouts told me they couldn't understand what was being sung, though Halton recently got new speakers and extra amplification. I missed a few words during Act One, when I sat in the eighth row, but heard clearly when I moved to the back of the house after intermission.