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The meat pies are yummy at the Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim's dark musical SWEENEY TODD, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Celebrating 78 years of theatre in Foster City, The Hillbarn Company has crafted a stunning vision of the Fleet Street bloodbath now on stage through February 10th. Widely acknowledged as Sondheim’s musical masterpiece, SWEENEY TODD is set amongst London’s seedy side streets and laced with Sondheim’s characteristically brilliant wit and dark humor. Artistic director Dan Demers says this a musical about good and evil, “Sweeney Todd is an equally thrilling and chilling tale about the desire for revenge and the desire of a monster’s search for love.” He goes on to mention his powerful cast “we are mixing twenty immensely talented Bay Area vocal performers and actors and a stellar production team to bring this story to life.”

Directed by local favorite Joshua Marx who brings his cast directly to your seat with this in your face company and story of revenge. Most of my readers know the story of the pie shop and Barber on Fleet Street so I will keep those details brief. Overall I was thrilled to see Keith Pinto and Heather Orth teamed to play this bloody couple. Both Bay Area actors are busy performers that bring 200% to the roles they play. I could not wait to see them sharpen the knives for this tale; the extraordinary Pinto’s tour de force performance as the mad man, and Orth’s “Poor Thing” cockney classic, Mrs Lovett. Pinto opens the story in a mad rage as he flawlessly sings “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” backed up by a pitch perfect company.

Mrs Lovett creates her tasty spectacular meat pies served with a side of fingernail. Orth who has been turning in memorable performances all over the Bay Area is at her best. In an interview in Regarding Arts Orth says playing Mrs. L is a dream come true “It’s been on my bucket list for a long, long time- I love the character so much! I grew up as a devotee of Angela Lansbury/like any great villain, she is absolutely convinced she is the hero of her own story”. Orth’s performance is highlighted by the iconic “A Little Priest” Sondheim’s music and lyrics are a triumph as Orth is spellbinding.

Pinto’s voice is filled with passion, hurt and anger; he pours everything into an intense madness that will rock you out of your seat. He bounces through the Hillbarn flying from the audience into Ting Na Wangs gothic rich set. The supporting cast is just as powerful; the entertaining Jesse Cortez steals the stage in his brief role as the barber con man, Adalfo Pirelli, as he sings “The Contest” with Sweeney. Pirelli, a rival barber, brings a charming evil to the stage.

The commanding, flawless Christopher Vette is leering as real villain, Judge Turpin, I have seen Vette play this same roll at the San Jose Stage Company and he soars in a reprise solo of “Johanna”. His goon and head constable Beadle Bamford is played by the ideal Samuel Nachison who is marvelous in his solo “The Ladies in Their Sensitivities.” Nachison brings a caped rascal to Beadle that makes him an evil yet charming Bobbie.

Johanna, the ingenue of the story, is played by superb soprano Jennifer Mitchell with her wild eyed, frantic quality that telegraphs pure dread and love. Mitchell is passionate and brings a true grace to the song “Kiss Me” with Jaron Vesely. Nothing in this scarred corner of London is clean, safe or innocent for long. The wonderful tenor, Vesely, plays the lost sailor Anthony Hope who shows off his distinguished voice in the haunting number “Johanna.” Mitchell’s performance of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is sterling and shows off her terrific voice and her distant love for the sailor.

"Not While I'm Around" is a soaring memorable ballad that Lovett sings with Toby, her vulnerable young helper, portrayed by the adoring Ross Briscoe. Orth is vocally keen, and Briscoe is awkward yet stirring as Toby winning the hearts of the sold out opening night audience. The splendid Juliet Green plays the mystery Beggar, her song “Ah Miss” with Mitchell and Vesely is impressive.

Pinto’s imposing stature and razor sharp brows captured the madness of a man who survived and escaped a prison colony. His voice reverberates the Foster City Barn and as his killings begin the sociopath is in bliss. Brandie Larkin’s sound design roars with death as each victim passes through death's door to the ovens below. Complemented by the striking red tones of lights from Pamila Z Gray’s effective lighting design. As Sweeny points his razor to the sold out audience as he singles out audience members to threaten while singing “they all deserve to die”, Marx’s stage direction is on cue to show the power of his left handed blade.

Director Marx and his craft team have created a deep darkness as each neck is slashed. The marvelous ensemble fill the many smaller roles; Karen Althoff, Kyle Arrouzet, Juan Castro, Ryan Courtin, Ron Houk, Danny Navarrete-Estassi, Elena Ron, James Schott, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, and Rachel Witte all have exceptional voices and bring Marx’s direction a sharp mayhem.

This production has a feel and a dark tinge of true madness. The beautiful vintage Victorian costumes designed by Yichuan Sharon Peng and Raven Winters have a stark gothic-noir feel an explosion of 1700’s London fishnets and corsets and big wigs. Her design is eye catching especially for Mrs Lovett and the pink inspired masked ballroom scene. The wigs top off this Victorian dizzy look for the company also designed by Peng.

Act one includes some vintage animation to help tell the story of Fleet Street that looms over the Pie shop created by Sydney Schwindt, and blends well into Wang’s set. Props by the clever Phyllis Garland included many set piece items that the cast uses: the classic canes for both the Judge and Beadle and Sweeney’s box of bladed shivs as he waves them during his death ballet.

The pies seemed fresh you can see most of the cast including Orth enjoying them. The dialect of the company is cockney rich as coached by Nancy Carlin. Stage manager Cirby Sarah Terman and her team Adria and Eric Olson have the intense job of keeping this death romp moving with a large cast and a busy set. Back stage is full throttle with a full 14 piece orchestra under the direction of Rick Reynolds. The orchestra and Sondheim's compelling score highlight this production, but Marx’ use of the entire Hillbarn space to tell the story is a show stopper. The company performs many of their numbers from the aisles in the venue.

The heart of this SWEENEY TODD is the power that drives home the point: “We can't kill the bankers, because the bankers are us.” A beautiful waltz celebrating cannibalism, and a love song from a barber to his razors. Joshua Marx has created a production with quick pacing and a sweeping pleasure of madness that Pinto shares with his audience. No fluff just point on chilling drama, and hauntingly romantic songs. Sweeney Todd offers a fascinating portrait of a man driven to murder by injustice, and the results are bloody spectacular. Sweeney and Lovett both violent, sociopaths brought the opening night crowd to their feet as Fleet Street fades to black. Up next at Hillbarn Theatre is Leading Ladies that opens March 7, a comic play where love and fortune intertwine. The 2018-19 season closes with the crowd-favorite musical Mamma Mia!, May 9, 2019. In the meantime line up for a haircut and shave on Fleet Street, it's the best way to warm up the winter, and bring your own doggie bag for the pies.



The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Musical Book by Hugh Wheeler

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Directed by Joshua Marx

Music Director Rick Reynolds

Scenic Design by Tina Na Wang

Must close February 10, 2019

Hillbarn Theatre

1285 East Hillsdale Blvd.

Foster City, CA 94404

Two hours 15 min with an intermission

Photos by Tracy Martin and Mark Kitoka

The cast Keith Pinto*, Heather Orth, Chris Vettel*, Sam Nachison, Jennifer Mitchell, Jaron Vesely, Jesse Cortez, Ross Neuenfeldt, Juliet Green Ensemble Karen Althoff, Kyle Arrouzet, Juan Castro, Ryan Courtin, Ron Houk, Danny Navarrete-Estassi, Elena Ron, James Schott, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, and Rachel Witte.

CRAFTS Rick Reynolds (Music Director), Sarah Terman (Stage Manager), Sharon Peng (Costume Design), Pam Gray (Lighting Designer) Tina Na Wang (Scenic Design), Brandie Larkin (Sound Design), Phyllis Garland (Props Master) Paulino Deleal (Master Builder), and Aya Matsutomo (Master Electrician). Projections credit goes to Sydney Schwindt.


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