Shufflin’ Off to Buffalo
for a sweet Little Dog and a delicious Sweeney treat
By Joel Markowitz
I grew up in Buffalo, NY – yes – that city where the wind chill gusts from Lake Erie can turn your features into ice sculptures. Yes – the city where the Sabres and Bills couldn’t win the “big one” and where Buffalo wings still rule.
Jan 25 — When I stepped off the plane, a whoosh of frigid air cut through me like a butcher’s knife. But when I hugged my friend Jack, who has lived in Buffalo with his partner Greg for almost two decades, my heart warmed up and I knew that I was back in the land of great pizza, friendly people, The Bills and The Sabres, and a renaissance of good theater.
I was excited to learn that my first theatre stop on this trip was going to be The Little Dog Laughed at Alleyway Theatre on downtown’s Main Street, which has seen a resurgence of small theatres in the last decade, including Shea’s Buffalo, Irish Classical Theatre, Alleyway Theatre, the Smith Theatre, MusicalFare at Daemen College, Studio Arena, The Road Less Traveled, The Jewish Repertory Theatre, and Buffalo United Artists, performing most of its productions the Main Street Cabaret. And to make life easier, the subway has a special stop in the theatre district called Theatre Place.
The Little Dog Laughed
The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane had a ruff short run when it transferred from Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre to Broadway‘s Cort Theatre in November 2006. The show opened and closed so fast there wasn’t time to even take the dog out for a dump. And I sadly missed Julie White’s Tony Award winning performance as Diane, the overly aggressive, ethically bereft, loud, controlling agent from hell..
And although I knew that Ms. Taylor would not be performing the role at the BUA production, I was told that local actress and Artie Award Winner (for Valhalla) Caitlin Coleman would do a fine job as Diane. And they were correct – she delivered her lines with power, emotion and loudness, like a pit bull in heat.
But, it was young, adorable Marc Sacco as the confused, conniving escort named Alex who stole the show for me (and the $10,000 check from Diane). He tries to fall in love with an “I want it all but want to stay in the closet” actor named Mitchell (Kevin Keleher), while dating Ellen (Rebecca Elkin). Yes, the plot is confusing…
Marc played the role with such childlike innocence, you could understand why anyone would want to pay Alex money to just snuggle with him, why Ellen would want to make love to him, even though she knows he’s an escort, and why acid-tongued Diane despises him and felt threatened by him. And Marc pulled it all off. Bravo Marc! Now, take that money and run!
A Double Keyed-Up Sweeney!
Sweeney Todd with two pianos? It worked!
Steven Sondheim would have smiled at MusicFare’s astounding production of Sweeney Todd at Daemen College. Directed brilliantly by Randall Kramer, who along with Theresa Quinn provided the excellent piano accompaniment, this Sweeney was sung so well that it brought this Sondheimite and the sold-out audience to its feet!!
I have seen dozens of productions of Sweeney Todd, but until today, I have never seen a production where great care was taken to ensure that each sumptuous Sondheim lyric was clearly enunciated. What bliss!
And what performances by a vocally astounding John Fredo as Sweeney and Lisa Ludwig as a very comical Mrs. Lovett! They had such great chemistry together. Their rendition of A Little Priest was hysterical, not only because you could laugh at every Sondheim pun, but it was obvious they were just having a blast singing it!
The rest of the supporting cast was equally brilliant. Christopher Howard as Anthony sang Johanna so beautifully that I closed my eyes and enjoyed each gorgeous note and lyric. Kurt Guba, who played Tobias, sent chills up and down my spine with his rendition of Not While I’m Around. I have never heard it sung better – anywhere. And Eliza Hayes Maher played Johanna perfectly – naive, child-like and silly. Her sweet and soaring rendition of Green Finch and Linnet Bird was simply stunning.
Debbie Pappas’s Beggar Woman was in a class by herself .She sang the hell out of the role and was the sleaziest Beggar Woman I had ever seen. Tom Owen whipped up excitement as Judge Turpin in his Mea Culpa scene. Phillip Farugia’s Beadle made you want to slug him, and Loraine O’Donnell’s Pirelli made you cheer Sweeney for finally making pie out of his barbering competitor.
A special kudo to the gorgeous costumes by Olivia Ebsory and the lighting and sound design by Chris Cavanaugh – simple, colorful, elegant and, of course, bloody.
I asked MusicFare Artistic/Executive Director and Sweeney Todd’s director to talk about some of the unusual choices he made for this production:
Joel: Why did your actors in the crowd scenes wear white masks?
Randall: Our version of SWEENEY uses a cast of 10 so we had to find ways to double people for the crowd scenes. Some of the characters, such as the Judge, Beadle, Anthony, and Johanna, are so identifiable that I thought it was necessary to remove their identity and make them faceless and nameless. This was done for two reasons:1) I didn’t want the audience to be confused as to what character they were watching. 2) I liked the idea that these lower class people were so irrelevant that they didn’t even have a face, an identity. In many ways I think that was one of the things Sondheim was getting at in the story – the exploitation of the lower class. Joel: Why did you have a drum built into Mrs. Lovett’s pie stand? What was its significance?Randall: I wanted music to be at the center of this production of SWEENEY. That’s why I placed the pianos onstage. They become, in a subtle way, part of the action. Building drums into Lovett’s pie stand so we could accent certain moments in the show with percussion seemed to me to be a logical extension of that idea. The use of the drums also created a different timbre of sound onstage. I think Sondheim’s music is all about colors, whether it’s in the harmonies, instrumentation, or playing. The drums gave us another one.
Joel: Why did you decide on using two pianos?
Randall: I wanted music to be at the center of this SWEENEY TODD. Since our theatre only seats 136 people I knew we could never afford a full orchestra or even more than 5 or 6 pieces. I wanted to keep the music acoustic and not electronic. Too many times this great score is reduced to dueling synthesizers and I wanted to stay away from that to preserve the integrity of it. I also liked the idea of sometimes seeing the pianist in silhouette while the action is going on around them. It felt like it allowed the production to sometimes live in multiple worlds.
Joel: Was it your plan to direct and also play the piano in this production?
Randall: Well, I didn’t start playing the show until the second week of the run. I would NEVER direct and play. It’s simply impossible to do justice to either. But, once the show was up, my job as a director was pretty much finished other than the occasional check up. So, when I realized in pre-production that my musical director would be unavailable for some of the performances after the first week I decided to take it over. I have a Masters degree in classical piano but I very rarely play shows anymore, I’m just too busy directing. But this was special. This was Sondheim! To play music that is at such a high level that it challenges you to rise to its level. That’s fun!
Joel: This was a Sweeney Todd I will never forget. A cut above the rest