Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Hoof ‘n’ Horns @ Duke University
Through Nov. 2

Just in time for Halloween comes Duke’s Department of Theatre Studies and Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s production of perhaps the most Goth musical ever, Stephen Sondheim’s classic Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Those who felt underserved by the Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp film adaptation last year (they cut the prologue!) will be thoroughly entertained by this version, which emphasizes the dark comedy of Sondheim’s adaptation.

Sweeney Todd is the tale of the barber exiled to prison by a lecherous judge in love with his wife, who returns home to a soot-choked London for vengeance. When he’s not after the judge or his daughter, Johanna (Claire Florian), he strikes up a relationship with Mrs. Lovett, whose meat pies he improves through a special ingredient.

It’s odd that a play involving rampant bloodletting and perverse relationships has become a cornerstone of modern musical theater, but this production has an almost classical feel, stripping down much of the fog effects and layered makeup from recent productions to put the emphasis on the performers. Jayme Mellema’s scene design combines crooked sets with rear-projection to create the sense of a London gone askew, while director John Clum, in his last directorial effort at Duke, does an excellent job of handling the complex, fast-paced production.

This show alternates the major roles; Scott Cruikshank played the role of Todd on the night I attended, and reprises the role on Nov. 1. Todd is played by Nate Jones during the other performances, while Cruikshank takes over as Judge Turpin from Michael Bergen. Itohan Aghayere played Mrs. Lovett on the night I attended; she alternates with Becky Swern. Cruikshank and Aghayere did fine the night I saw them, though Cruikshank’s deep voice makes him a good choice for the lecherous Turpin, and I’m curious to see him in that role. Among the ensemble, a standout is Kousha Navidar as the ludicrous huckster Pirelli; his exuberance in the role gives his scenes a particular comic energy.

Pun intended, you should definitely attend the tale of Sweeney Toddespecially on Halloween, when there’s a special “Come in Costume” performance. Zack Smith

Vivien and The Shadows
Ong Keng Sen/ Carolina Performing Arts @ UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall
World premiere Oct. 21

Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen’s Vivien and The Shadows opens and closes with a monologue performed by a woman (performance artist Julie Atlas Muz) wearing enough makeup to suffocate a drag queenand that’s very much the point. Her text circulates around lipstick, rouge and eye shadow in dialogue keyed for resonances found in words like “eye” (“I”) and “liner” (a “line” of text). Congruently, the piece closes with the same character expounding on the finer points of how to apply false eyelashes in dialogue soaked in metaphor and multiple meanings (“tacky” doubles as both sticky and shticky). These passages are taut, pointed and well executed. Unfortunately the rest of the production doesn’t retain such focus.

Ah, the promise of multimedia theater. In the hands of the rare, masterful director it holds the potential for tour de force presentations (Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Laurie Anderson). But as so many productions have borne out, multimedia is not enough to engage an audiencean elaborate, ornate empty vessel is still empty. In some ways Vivien and The Shadows felt at its core like an exploded one-man show, exploring issues of racism, gender identity and sexuality in the context of personal confessions and star worship, in this case narrowing its focus on Vivien Leigh in her turn as Blanche DuBois in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. If we were to remove high-end stagecraft, the massive and often beautiful projections, the mirrored disco ball and the three dynamic performers who embodied shifting Leigh/ DuBois doppelgangers (Muz, Karen Kandel and Charlotte Engelkes), what would remain? This production might have benefited from such questions.

The most deadening aspect of Vivien and The Shadows was the decision to screen the entire film of A Streetcar Named Desire throughout the production on small-screen TVs. It brings to mind the old theater adage: Never have a clock onstage. This structure puts the audience in the position of watching the time wind down, and the production becomes a waiting game. If Ong Ken Sen were to consider removing this single element, it would open up his directorial choices, allow him to focus scenes and develop ideas without the constraint of this temporal limitation. Indeed, many sequences began to feel like “filler,” with his performers flailing around in loose choreographies or shadow plays set against Kaffe Matthews’ evocative electronic soundscape.

There are several elements at play in Vivien and The Shadows that feel stuck in the ’80s: its color scheme of black and white with touches of color (red in particular), its self-conscious use of multiple performers embodying one character, the pastiche of gender politics and confessional narrative, and its central investigation of the notion of the copy (à la Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 Simulations). Which is not to say that ideas or approaches should not be used if they’ve been done before. Not at all. However, cumulatively, this production felt held back by random structural constraints and a love affair with multimedia in capital letters, when it could have benefited from the care hinted at in its beginning and ending monologuesthe singular clarity required to achieve the perfectly painted face. Amy White

Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Compagnie Heddy Maalem @ UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall
Oct. 25

Goosebumps, actually: When the 14 African dancers who presented French-Algerian choreographer Heddy Maalem’s four-year-old adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s watershed 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring took their final bow Saturday night, that’s the sensation that shot through my body. Maalem’s reprisal of the iconic work borrowed only sections and themes of the original score and plot, implanting them into an expanded multimedia atmosphere of video projections and cacophonous electronics. The result felt modern and timely, an update on a classic that flared with immediacy.

Maalem’s take split its scenes between the garden and the citymore specifically, between the natural jungle and the urban jungle Lagos, the Nigerian city in which Maalem first had the idea for the project. It’s unclear which setting Maalem prefers, as both seemed to offer opportunities for rebirth and destruction, chaos and care. Indeed, the dance provoked through a set of ambiguities and valencesbetween life and death, sex and battle, past and presentall of which sprang from a dynamic canvas of motion and music. A captivating closing solo from a male dancer made it seem as if he was dying or being bornor, as Maalem would have itboth. Grayson Currin

Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom
N.C. Theatre @ Progress Energy Center’s Memorial Auditorium
Closed Oct. 26

For the record, Phantom, N.C. Theatre’s musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux novel that closed last weekend at Memorial Auditorium, was not the Andrew Lloyd Webber version whose tunes are constantly covered by aspiring singers and elevator-music companies. It was a different version, developed before Webber’s, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and a book by Arthur Kopit, author of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. While this version featured forgettable music compared to Webber’s bombastic ballads, it boasted a far stronger, more dramatic story that struck a deep emotional chord.

The story is well known by nowthe deformed genius Erik (Michael Minarik of Les Miserables on Broadway) lives under the Paris Opera House, where he finds himself in the position of muse to young ingénue Christine (Rebecca Pritcher). Displeased when untalented diva Carlotta (Ellen Harvey) takes over the house and Christine falls for dashing Philippe (Jarrod Emick), Erik kidnaps Christine into his tunnel world, with tragic results.

This version of the story doesn’t let us see the Phantom’s face, but instead places the emphasis on Erik’s outsider status and his relationship with his longtime protector Carriere (Neal Benari). Much of the second act focuses on this relationship, along with the alienation Erik feels from Christine and society. This is a terribly articulate Phantomhe quotes William Blake and has a few witty one-liners. Living under an opera house would cause you to pick up some culture, I suppose.

The N.C. Theatre show featured excellent staging, costumes and moving sets that keep the production fast-paced, though viewers weren’t likely to leave the theater humming any of the songs, despite good work from Pritcher, Harvey and the rest of the cast. But this was a more dramatic, complex and coherent version of the story, with a climactic duet between Benari and Minarik a touching highlight. Yeston and Kopit’s show isn’t as good a musical as Webber’s version, but it is a better play. If only there was a way to combine Kopit’s book with Webber’s songs, you’d have a masterpiece. Zack Smith