By Myra Chanin . . .
When I learned Boca Raton’s Lynn University was opening their Live at Lynn season with a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, I naturally rolled my eyes. I had been considered a not-all-that-elite Manhattan theater and cabaret reviewer for two decades, long enough to spot chutzpah before it blinded me. One might well wonder whether I left before or during the intermission. Relocate your wonder as I relocated mine because I sat entranced, overwhelmed, stunned by every aspect of this fascinating and very professional production, from its first blaring, discordant notes until the final cheers of the standing ovation which accompanied the players extended curtain-less curtain calls.
First, let’s acknowledge several people whose generosity, financial, intellectual and spiritual, were essential to this excellence, starting with the “Elaine” in The Keith and Elaine Johnson Wold’s Performing Arts Center and its luxurious, intimate, comfortable 750-seat Wold Theater in which Sweeney Todd was brought to glorious life. Next, Adam Simpson, who can and does act and can also teach acting, arrived at Lynn in 2005 as a humble teacher. Subsequently, aided by Carrie Simpson, his wife/colleague and Dr. Katrina Carter-Tellison, Lynn’s Dean for Academic Affairs, he secured approval for a B.F.A. Drama Degree in the College of Arts and Sciences. Now, Chair of Lynn’s Drama Department, this degree program allows Simpson to recruit faculty members like Michael Hunsaker, the amazing multi-faceted director of Lynn’s Sweeney Todd. Hunsaker’s a Boca boy who returned home in 2020 with considerable experience on New York City stages as performer, writer, and composer. His subtractions and additions to Sweeney’s original script and staging were inspired. He eliminated redundancies, which no one, including me, missed, allowed choreographer Marli Pickford, a Lynn student, to add mood-enhancing choreography to the production, which augmented whatever was being sung.
I think Sweeney Todd displays Sondheim at his most profound, dealing with lust and love, life and death in their many variations. The score is operatic, with 80% percent of the words sung in chilling, ominous, minor key refrains that alternate with perky, bright and cheerful English Music Hall-ish, toe-tapping tunes.
Here’s the plot. Sweeney Todd, an unjustly exiled barber, returns to 19th Century London, seeking revenge on the lecherous Judge who framed him, ravaged his wife and lusts after Todd’s now beautiful, young daughter Johanna, who’s become the Judge’s ward. Sweeney encounters Mrs. Lovett, a resourceful but unfortunate entrepreneur who bakes the worst pies in London. She instantly recognizes him as Benjamin Barker, as he was formerly known, reunites him with his beloved steel razors and helps him reopen his barber shop, where Sweeney hopes to attract the evil Judge for a really close shave. Alas, when the Judge eludes Sweeney’s clutches, Sweeney’s murderous rage turns universal. His customers become corpses delecti, to be triple ground by Mrs. L and endure immortality as delectable pie fillings, which sell like hotcakes.
Sweeney’s story is as horrific as Hunsaker’s production is miraculous, buoyed up by a 20 student company whose voices blend in Broadway-worthy passion and harmony. The 10 person orchestra – who sound like they are 20 – is under the music direction of Lynn’s adjunct instructor, Caryl Fantel, who, among her many credits, toured the world with Hugh Jackman. Woo! Woo! Nationally recognized Lighting Director Clifford Spurlock masterfully manipulates the theater’s built-in lighting to enhance any desired effect or mood. Guthrie trained Set Designer Jacob Andreas constructed wheeled, nimble. aluminum-tubed structures that serve as pie or barber shop, insane asylum or the Judge’s abode. Costume Designer Jahzeel Ramos wields his wizardry into appropriately gorgeous or morose, vampirish costumes and make-up. I particular like Mrs. Lovett’s second act satin extravaganza, totally in keeping with the rising status of a nobody who’s found a cheap and unending supply of ingredients.
Michael Hunsaker is a truly amazing director. No detail escapes his eye. Johanna (Abbie Fricke), Sweeney’s daughter and the play’s love interest, is a blonde beauty with the airy vocal range of a coloratura. In her first touching song she asks birds, caged like her, to teach her how to sing, unaware that they have been blinded so they cannot tell night from day and sing all the time. Later, when she and Anthony Hope (Malik Jenkins) are planning to elope, she sounds confused, like the uneducated, cooped up ninny she was. I have seen Sweeney Todd many times, and I never before got that impression about Johanna, and I think it’s the correct one.
The cast is a triumph of diversity. Skin color, eye shape, ethnicity, even gender become immaterial when the level of artistry is so uniformly high. Afro-American Hedwyn Lamy’s Sweeney owns the stage from the second he steps on it. An exceptional performer, who speaks and sings with feeling and power, moves with the ease of a more experienced performer, he looks totally at home on stage, yet subtlety imparts the anxious vibes of an outsider. There was never a second that I thought he might be anyone other than Mr. Todd. He’s a natural. If it takes a little longer for his talent to overwhelm Broadway producers, his degree in computer animation will save him from having to wait tables at Sardi’s where there were more cartoons on the wall than diners at the tables last time I stopped there, and the food, including the basket of stale bread, was pretty inedible.
Shannon Tsunoda – her last name’s Japanese — Lamy’s equally impressive co-star and stage co-owner, portrays a forceful, domineering yet playful and loving, plump Mrs. Lovett, with equally impressive acting, singing and ease before the footlights as Lamy. She has a great voice, lots of style and she’s adorable, bossy and as impressive on stage. They work together as flawlessly and intuitively as Lunt and Fontanne. How lucky for them to have found themselves on the same stage at the same time.
Raisa Asim, a lean and lithe woman, quickly transitions into Adolpho Pirelli, simply by pasting a mustachio on her upper lip. Anthony Lobo’s Judge Turpin is lustful but guilty. Frankie Mirabella as Tobias is very sweet and protective of Mrs. Lovett, but not vice versa. Ellie Rey does a wonderful job as the beggar woman, who turns out to be Sweeney’s now mad wife. Remember, all of the above are Lynn University students, some even freshman and boy are they good.
Lynn’s Sweeney Todd is the bargain of the century, $25 for a very comfortable seat. Try to see this weekend. The play closes on Sunday night, October 16. If you are in Boca Raton and love outstanding theater, join me in making Lynn University’s Sweeney Todd a bloody success.
Check their website for goodies to come: Midsummer Night’s Dream, December 2, 3, 4, followed by 42nd Street, in February of 2023. I’ll be there. Hope you will also. These performers have convinced me that Theatre’s Future is in excellent hands.
Keith C. & Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Ctr at Lynn University
3601 North Military Trail, Boca Raton, FL 33431, Phone: (561) 237-9000