I attended the tale of Sweeney Todd…

March 11, 2010

Edward Gero and Sherri L. Edelen star in Signature Theatre's 20th anniversary production of Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD.

I first saw Sweeney Todd in the late Seventies during a Saturday matinee during the Broadway previews, before the Judge’s version of Johanna got cut, and I rushed to the record store the day the cast album was released.  Sweeney Todd was the first show I saw at the Kennedy Center as freshman at Georgetown on election night 1980.  (The politician line didn’t get a laugh.)  While hanging around the back of the orchestra section of the Opera House during intermission (trying to sneak into an orchestra seat having spent Act I in the second balcony), I had a chat with the woman who was about to go in as the Beggar Woman, who answered several major questions I had about how the character was used in the original production.  (She also told me that most of the cast members who had to go down the barber chair chute had ended up with back problems.)  Along with The Sound of Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Sunset Blvd, it is probably the show I have seen the most.

Donna Migliaccio (then Lillard) in the The Arlington Players' Sweeney Todd in 1986

Among those productions were the Arlington Players version of the show, where Donna Migliaccio (then Lillard) first played Mrs. Lovett and the original Signature production which also featured my chums Michael Forest and Judy Simmons in Eric Schaeffer’s brilliant breakthrough staging in a black-box space at Gunston.  I also saw the next Signature production on Four Mile Run where as much as I liked all the elements (especially Norm Lewis’s intense Sweeney), I missed a hand gesture that I loved that Migliaccio did on “fishies splashing” in the previous stagings.  And for its Twentieth Anniversary season, Schaeffer and Signature are presenting Sweeney again, again in a new space.

Well, give Eric Shaeffer full credit for not resting on his laurels with this show.  He has obviously taken a fresh look at the show and has obviously put a lot of thought into the effort.   He has re-imagined the setting of the show as an abattoir-cum-construction-space, with the mood begins as one enters the anteroom* festooned with plastic drop cloths.  The theme continues with welders during the opening number and is carried through the end with corpses dropping over the audience during the final “there”s.

In case anyone reading this doesn’t know the show, it’s a warmhearted romp set in Victorian London about a barber getting revenge on society by killing all his customers and his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Lovett who then turns the bodies into meat pies.  It illustrates one of the biggest problems for investors in the musical theater – that you can never ultimately tell what stories will become successes (the competition to buy a girl’s picnic basket, The Comedy of Errors, dancing cats) and what will abysmally fail (the stories of Dr. Seuss, The Comedy of Errors, a troubled girl goes to the prom).

Unfortunately, this production as a whole didn’t really come together for me due to three problems this production seems to have.  The first is that the very broad stage in the space often makes it difficult to focus correctly to locate parts of the action.  Secondly, although Ed Gero has been one of Washington’s greatest theatrical resources for decades he is a highly problematic Sweeney Todd.  Yes, he seems to be newly embarking on a career in musicals, evidenced by choices of melodic variations, shortened musical phrases, occasional rhythmic iffy-ness, and pitch problems when he’s attacking higher material (though his diction is flawless).  However, I don’t get his interpretation of Sweeney.  As a matter of fact, he is the only Sweeney I’ve ever seen who seems to get happier and more relaxed as the evening progresses.  Finally, there seems to be something about the new, reduced 4-piece orchestrations that seems to occasionally throw the singers.  Because that’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain how a number of great musical artists can seem to be so dicey with this score.  During Kiss Me, for example, Gregory Maheu as Anthony and Erin Driscoll as Johanna were individually sounding great, but the whole effect didn’t come together.  And the middle of the letter sequence in the second act was a vocal train wreck in the performance I saw.

Edward Gero and Sherri L. Edelen. Photo credit: Scott Suchman

Having heard so much praise for Sherri Edelen’s Mrs. Lovett , I tempered my expectations before going in.  I needn’t have.  She really brings some amazing, subtle insights into the role.  And hers was the first time I found myself wondering about the backstory of her husband’s death and how the judge first got tipped off to Lucy’s beauty.  And she has such energy, verve, and connectedness in the role, that when she did the line in Little Priest, “with is extra” that was added at least in the last revival, it felt like it was ad-libbed on the spot.

Some other notes on the production:

  • In one of the first act iterations of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, “like a perfect machine he planned” is now “like a fucking machine he planned.”  I’m told that this change comes directly at the suggestion of Sondheim.
  • One of my pet peeves about most productions of Sweeney (including this) is that I feel it is unfair to the audience to have the wrong performer play Lucy in the rape scene, especially if the actors who play Judge Turpin and The Beadle are playing the characters.  When I was talking to the actress from the Broadway run, she mentioned that this involved having a dresser and a makeup person in Mrs. Lovett’s house onstage to facilitate the change in and out of the Lucy outfit.
  • Sherri Edelen’s reading of the “what are you going to do for money” scene was probably the best I’ve ever seen it played.
  • Gregory Maheu is my favorite Anthony to date.  (Sorry Mr. Garber.)  The way they had him appearing so “normal” made him fabulously alien in the world of the show.
  • Erin Driscol did her usually amazing job as Johanna, and it’s incredible to think that next month she’ll be Heidi in [title of show].
  • The set for the show was meant to have a scaffolding / construction site feel.  However, when the elevator descended during the opening number, instead of having an awe-struck, star-entrance moment, I found myself thinking, “Cool, they can just re-purpose the whole set and run Company in rep, too.”

    Chris Sizemore is a thin Beadle !

  • For the first time that I’ve ever seen (and I don’t know why it was such a shock), a thin Beadle !
  • Given that Michael Bunce was one of the most charming Pirelli’s I’ve ever seen, I didn’t cringe when the tooth-pulling sequence was reinstated.  However, the Beggar Woman’s lullaby is still out.

So, while not necessarily the most integrated theatrical experience, it’s a very good, interestingly-thought production of what is arguably the greatest musical of the second half of the Twentieth Century.  And it’s a must-see for Sondheim Queens, especially so we’ll have a basis for comparison for the inevitable 30th Anniversary production featuring Will Gartshore and Kristen Chenoweth.

*By the way, I want to applaud whoever it is who decorates that anteroom space from show to show.  I always look forward to see how it’s going to be themed for a particular production.

Photos from A Date with Judy

July 18, 2009

Judy Simmons Performs-5760 by DCMatt.It was also irksome to miss Judy Simmons’s new show, A Date With Judy, because I was on the road. 

Ron said the evening was terrific.  And Matt Howe forwarded a link to some spectacular pix of the performer and friends attending.  (Thanks, Matt!)

Follies in Arlington

April 13, 2009


As I always say, every time I see the show Follies, I cry and I cry.  And then the overture starts…

The Arlington Players is opening their production of Follies this coming weekend.  The memory of their production in the 80’s starring Ann Johnson, Bart Whiteman, Peter Gill, and Judy Simmons remains a favorite memory, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this one goes.  (And some pretty powerhouse talents in this one with Lynn Neal, Jimmy Payne, and Deborah Davidson — not to mention direction by the great Christopher Dykton.)

 For an insight into the show before you go, you might want to check out Dykton’s blog on the show.

Showcase Rehearsal

February 25, 2009

I had a rehearsal last night for the DC Cabaret Network showcase on Sunday at the Arts Club with Alex Tang and Judy Simmons.

I think all veteran performers have their own tricks and secrets for working with a music director and stage director in these situations.  Click here for mine.

And here’s the secret behind the secret.

Before the rehearsal, I prepped with Mary Sugar to put my thoughts together about how I want to do the songs I chose.  After we got through with At Long Last Love (bell tone before the intro, two verses cutting the “love” at the end of the verses, modulation into the third verse, tag after the third verse, “three and out” at the end), I said to her, “Well, you must go through this a  lot.”  Her  response was, “You know, most people just want to  sing things the way they’re written.”   So much said  in one little statement.

In my Helen Hayes round-up column, I forgot to congratulate Judy Simmons on being Helen Hayes nominated for Goodnight, Moon.  When we were discussing the Helens, I couldn’t help but pass along the bit of gossip that a local performer, directing a recent project, several times during the process was heard to say, “You know, I was nominated for a Helen Hayes award!”  Mercifully, I wasn’t there, because it would have been too tempting to use the Ann Hampton Callaway line from  Sibling Revelry, “Who won that year?”

Anyway, it’s shaping up to be a great show.  Ron’s two songs are looking good.  Mary Reilly who had the rehearsal slot before Ron and me sounded wonderful and Emily Everson is planning two songs I love.

Here’s ticket info:

The DC Cabaret Network is delighted to present the fourth DC CABARET NETWORK MEMBERS ONLY SHOWCASE.  Please join us for a wonderful evening of Cabaret featuring our own DC Cabaret Network Members on Sunday, March 1st at 8:00pm at The Arts Club located at 2017 I Street, NW.  These talented Cabaret performers will be accompanied by the extraordinary Musical Director Alex Tang and directed by Judy Simmons.  Wine and sodas will be available for a small fee (cash only bar).
Reservations are highly recommended and should be sent to:  (please include your name, phone number and address) info@dccabaretnetwork.org
$10 for non-members and $5 for members (cash only)

Marianne Glass Miller at CHAW

February 7, 2009

I got to see the debut performance of Marianne Glass Miller doing her first solo show, So Far at CHAW. 

Part of me wants to joke that the show should be called About Time since Marianne has been a solid musical presence in DC (dating back to the Off The Circle days with fondly-remembered performers like Pam Bierly, Dorie Legg, and Ann Johnson) without ever actually having done a solo show.  But the proof is in the pudding.  It’s obviously terrific that she waited until she was good and ready to do a show on her own terms because this was a wonderful debut outing.

One of the hardest things for most people approaching their first show is to get their persona right.  But Marianne was the same charming, open, witty, approachable person on-stage than she is off.  I thought she did a terrific job of picking interesting, varied material that she filtered through her own distinct sensibility so it seemed like a cohesive whole.  And she had a variety of charming moments throughout.  One of my favorites was when she admitted an early ambition of being one of Bette Midler’s backup singers, and lip-synched to a recording of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy doing the back-up moves.

George Fulginiti-Shakar provided terrific, imaginitive support and the sure hand of stage director Judy Simmons was evident throughout.

Toward the end of the show, Marianne said “I always used to think of myself as the supporting actor, not the leading lady.”  Well tonight it was lovely to see her take and hold center stage so convincingly.  And best of all, she’s doing it all again Saturday night.

Here’s the song list:

  • When I See an Elephant Fly
  • Take Me to the World
  • Another Night at Darryl’s
  • My Husband Makes Movies
  • Why Walk When You Can Fly
  • Not While I’m Around
  • I Get to Show You the Ocean
  • I Don’t Remember You
  • I Can’t Be New
  • The Last Song
  • It’s the Strangest Thing
  • Before the Parade Passes By
  • (encore) On My Way to You

I have to admit a slight disappointment that she didn’t sing my favorite songs from her repertoire, Come Down From Your Tree and Make Me a Kite, but it just shows the depth of her repertoire.  OR maybe it’s a start for her next show!

Cabaret Class Recital

October 27, 2008

Ron and I were priviledged to attend the final recital class for Judy Simmons and George Fulginiti-Shakar’s latest cabaret class at the Theatre Lab.  

It was really terrific to see everyone’s work!  I always find it encouraging when work pays off — and it was terrific to see that people who attended this session whose work I was familiar with seemed to have grown as a result of the class.  And people whose work I wasn’t previously familiar with acquitted themselves handsomely.

Having taken the class myself, I think Judy and George do a terrific job of tailoring their instruction to the needs of each participant.  And I think that it’s terrific that they have a mini-cabaret as the last class since performing for a class and for an audience are inevitably two different experiences!

A hearty congratulations to all!!!

(OK, I admit I have a dilemma with this post.  Since I was invited as a friend/fan of one of the participants and not as a blogger/reviewer, I feel sensitive about going into more specifics.  However, since I know that participants in the class are among my loyal tens-of-readers, please feel free to add more specifics comments / congratulations.)

Follies Blog

September 1, 2008

Whenever I go see the musical Follies, I cry and cry and cry.  And then the overture starts.

The Arlington Players are doing Follies this season, and director Chris Dykton has started a blog about his process.

The last production TAP did in the mid-80s featured indelible performances by Ann Johnson (still the best Sally I’ve ebver seen), Bart Whiteman during his Source exile as Ben, Peter Gil (who expressed surprise that he was cast as Buddy and not Ben), and Judy Simmons belting out Broadway Baby.  I’m looking forward to seeing who’ll be making me cry this time.

Those scene stealers!

August 1, 2008

Congratulations to Judy Simmons, Emily Everson, and Michael Sazonov for making the cut of Joel Marcowitz’s Fringe Festival Scene Stealers.  Joel does a great set of write-ups and interviews.

Going Psycho (Cabaret)

July 19, 2008

I finally caught Psycho Cabaret, the DC Cabaret Network entry in this year’s Fringe Festival.  What a terrific show!  From the moment Chris Cochran, Lonny Smith and Michael Sazonov launch into Stress at the top of the show to the time that the company concludes with As We Stumble Along, the show is 55 minutes of delights.  They’re too numerous to list here, but special favorites include Emily Everson’s take on Don’t Touch Me (from Young Frankenstein), Lonny Smith’s Run Away with Me, Judy Simmon’s Another Winter in a Summer Town (from Grey Gardens), and Terri Allen’s Saturday Night.  I always love Michael Sazonov’s work — his What Is It About Her? was up to his usual standard of excellence; and even though I didn’t quite buy The Lies of Handsome Men told from a heterosexual male perspective, it’s thrilling to watch an artist make fascinating, bold, risky choices.  Also, Jeff Tucker was doing an amazing job mixing sound throughout the show.

I do have to take whoever is doing the marketing for this show to task.  The communications I’ve seen from the DC Cabaret Network have a “please support us” / floss your teeth rationale as the argument why people should see this show.  And I think that does a disservice to the people performing.  People should see this show because it’s a terrific show!

The songs…

  • Stress  — Ensemble
  • Don’t Touch Me — Emily Everson
  • You Wnna Be My Friend — Arlene Hill
  • Twisted — Terri Allen
  • What Is It About Her? — Michael Sazonov
  • I’m Not My Mother  — Chris Cochrane
  • Run Away With me — Lonny Smith
  • Another Winter in a Summer Town — Judy Simmons
  • Sweet Dreams — George Fulginiti-Shkar
  • Shattered Illusions — Ensemble
  • Lies of Handsome Men — Michael Sazonov
  • I Don’t Remember Christmas — Chris Cochrane
  • Would You Let Me — Roy Zimmerman
  • What Am I Doin’? — Lonny Smith
  • Saturday Night — Terri Allen
  • Ghost of a Chance — Arlene Hill
  • The Best Thing to Happen to Me — Judy Simmons
  • As We Stumble Along — Ensemble

Michael Vitaly Sazonov at Indigo on December 7

November 23, 2007

Michael Vitaly Sazonov 


the education of a young, modern day romantic



Directed by  Judy Simmons
Accompanied by  Alex Tang

Michael takes you by the hand as he travels on that bumpy road through Love, Loss, Lust, and Life using his extraordinary voice to passionately evoke such musical contemporaries as John Bucchino, Andrew Lippa, and Stephen Sondheim as well as reverently conjuring some of his other favorites…Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, and Sammy Cahn.   Delicately blending contemporary wit and classic charm, this is a journey that will seduce you with its daring, marvelously funny revelations.

Order tickets

December 7, 2007 at 9:00pm
Indigo at the Atlas Performing Arts Center — 1333 H Street NE Washington, DC