I enjoyed a slice of life as only Sondheim can deliver it last night, attending the first Valley production of “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” which is being performed by Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale through Sunday. Folks who hit tonight’s show can enjoy the added thrill of sharing the company’s 2012/13 season reveal.
I ran into director Kenny Grossman after the show. “You’re a brave man,” I told him. “That’s a big show for a small stage.” It only worked because of clever set design — the work of Grossman and Bobby Sample. There’s also serious fun with props, the work of Vicki Grossman. (Think tools of the meat pie trade.)
There’s even a pair of Grossmans in the cast. Carly Grossman is part of the very capable ensemble, and Jamie Grossman completely rocked the role of Mrs. Lovett. Sondheim is a bear to sing, but she’s got both serious vocal chops and delightful comedic timing. The University of Arizona musical theatre program is fortunate that she’s joining their freshman class next year.
A warning to mom and pop Grossman, however. That freshman year sails by. Seems we just sent daughter Lizabeth off to college, and she’s returning next week proud to be a sophomore already. Attend the tale of the empty nest. Several seniors in the cast share college plans in their program bios — including ASU’s Barrett College/Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Tyler J. Gasper, whose program bio notes that he’ll “soon be heading to New York City,” performs the role of Sweeney Todd. Gasper has performed with several Valley theater companies, including Arizona Broadway Theatre, Hale Centre Theatre, Theater Works and Desert Stages Theatre. Gasper’s bio also notes that he’s been cast in the Phoenix Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” so fans will know where to find him.
Several cast members were culled from Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix and the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics in Peoria, including some I saw in another area first — a school production of “Spring Awakening.” This is another “mature content” musical and Spotlight notes that parental guidance is suggested.
Though I wasn’t wild about every element of the show, I felt sympatico with Grossman’s vision the minute I read his director’s statement. “Sweeney Todd, School Edition isn’t about violence and blood,” he wrote. “It is a very complex story about injustice.” Its themes resonate in contemporary American society, consumed by discrepencies between the 99% and the 1%.
“The characters,” adds Grossman, “are emotional and deep.” He advises theater goers to “Focus on the love and tortured souls of the characters” rather than the musical’s violence and blood. Teens will take me to task for saying this, but it’ll be a few years until they fully appreciate the depth of love hidden amidst all that blood. That’s part of the challenge in giving youth such meaty roles.
Grossman’s note also alludes to the humor in this work, which features book by Hugh Wheeler in addition to music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I’ve seen two previous productions of “Sweeney Todd” and this was the funniest by far — in a good way. My favorite part of the show has always been a song titled “Johanna.” Butcher that and it’s all over in my book. Thankfully, Sam Brouillette (Anthony Hope) does a lovely job with the melody.
Half the fun was hearing reactions of audience members who’ve apparently never seen the musical before. The cumulative effect of revenge gone wrong is shocking in the show’s final scenes, and I enjoyed hearing a good gasp or two. But I was puzzled by the use of head mics in such a small house with actors plenty good at projecting their voices.
Still, I’m hoping folks will support the Spotlight Youth Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd School Edition.” It’s a slice of life that’s hard to find elsewhere, and it took real guts to put it on their menu.
Note: The musical director for “Sweeney Todd School Edition” at Spotlight Youth Theatre is Mark 4Man. Costumes are by Tamara Treat. Hair and make-up is by Angel DeMichael. Please note that although a Monday matinee is listed on their website, your final chance to see the show is Sunday, May 6.
Coming up: Museum meets asylum, Jim Gradillas talks playwriting
Update: Spotlight Youth Theatre’s 2012/13 season includes “The Little Mermaid Jr.” (Oct 26 -Nov 11), “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” (Dec 12 – Dec 23), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (Jan 11 – Jan 27), “The Yellow Boat” (Feb 15 – Mar 3), “Once On This Island” (Apr 5 – Apr 21), “Footloose” (May 24 – Jun 6). Weigh in on their Facebook page. Post updated 5/6/12.