Sunday, September 30, 2012

PART 2 OF 4: AN INTERVIEW WITH KATHY BROMBACHER

Kathy Brombacher.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
When would you say was your very first time getting involved in theatre?

My wonderful journalism teacher gave me as a graduation present a two week workshop at the University of Redlands.  My mother thought “Are you kidding? What could she do with theatre!?”  But the teacher saw something in me.  And so I took summer school at the University of Redlands right out of my senior year of high school.  First, I was terrified at having to perform and sing and do the things that they did.  But then, I got hooked.  And because I was going to the university, I met actors: the teachers were students at the university in the theatre department.  So I met the people already and it was just a natural segue to getting involved with the theatre.  But I owe that all to my journalism teacher who somehow saw that that might be something good for me.  I had been a public speaker in high school also…I had done speech competitions, contests, that sort of thing.  So maybe that was part of it.  Then, I started taking those theatre classes in college and went on and focused on directing at one point.  

What was the first show you ever performed in?  What role did you play? 

I think that would be the “Merchant of Venice” my freshman year.  I played the role of Jessica.  And, heaven knows, I needed a lot of training!  [laughs] But the University of Redlands did one Shakespearian production a year.  And we all auditioned for everything and that was what I recall was my first official role.  And to this day, I love Shakespeare!

I want to talk more about your acting experience in the pre-Moonlight era.  Have you acted with other San Diego theatre companies, for example, The Old Globe or La Jolla Playhouse?  

Yes, with The Old Globe.  I did a production of Chekov’s “The Seagull” directed by Craig Noel.  At the time, I was teaching high school in Vista and they had open call auditions.  At that time, I think it was 1978, this was a production that went into the theatre-in-the-round there and they were not paying the actors, except there were two Equity actors that they paid, but it was essentially all volunteer at that time.  So my driving from Vista to San Diego while I was teaching full time was a little demanding, but it was something that I really wanted to do.  

Kathy and Craig Noel at the 2004 SD Theatre Critics Circle Awards.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Kathy and Craig at the 2006 SD Theatre Critics Circle Awards.  Photo courtesy of the SDTCCA.

I also performed with The La Jolla Stage Company in “The Lion in Winter.”  I played Eleanor.  That was some years ago … I can’t exactly remember the date, but it was another one I performed in while I was teaching and I drove down.  And I became good friends with Walt Stuart, who was the artistic director of La Jolla Stage Company and directed the show.  He was a long time teacher of theatre at La Jolla High School and that theatre was on the campus of La Jolla High.  It was a community theatre that he helped develop. 
 
And I did a couple of things here locally before the Moonlight got started.  I did “The Lion in Winter” here for North County Community Theatre.  I was Eleanor in that.  And I did the role of Hope Harcourt in “Anything Goes” with that same community theatre.  

And onstage at Moonlight I played the role of Vera in “Mame,” the role of Jack’s Mother in “Into the Woods,” and Julia in “Lend Me A Tenor.”    

Wow.  You’ve had the privilege of playing some fantastic roles.  Have you worked alongside any memorable San Diego actors?  

Brian Salmon.  Brian, I met at “The Lion in Winter” that we did in La Jolla.  Thereafter, he came to our theatre to play Professor Henry Higgins in our first “My Fair Lady.”  And I have great admiration for Brian.  He’s a great person as well.  

Any particular funny stories or interesting experiences during your onstage acting career?

Well, when I was doing “Mame” at Moonlight in 1991, I decided to be on stage, which took a lot of doing, but meanwhile I was working with a new director, a new lighting designer, a new costumer.  Usually, what an artistic director does is integrate new staff in that direction from out front.  So, because I had a relatively large role onstage, I wasn’t able to sit out and integrate.  The director had a personal emergency, the choreographer left the show, and the costumes weren’t finished the night before opening.  And I thought: of all shows to be in onstage, when what I really should be doing is helping direct from out front, helping finish the lighting, etc.  So we just had to go forward and I called in some of my friends who helped with the costumes and the show went on … but it is not really a funny story.  It’s actually kind of sad.  [laughs]  That all these things happened in one production!  

Into the 1990’s I had decided - and it was a very good decision - to bring in some wonderful directors from the outside.  I had only had a couple of local directors work with me and I was directing most of the productions in the 1980’s.  So in the 1990’s, I said we’ve got to reach out and bring in more actors of a professional level.  So that was my philosophy in the 90’s: integrating the artists that come from Orange County, San Diego, wherever it might be.  And it was wonderful.  But “Mame” was one of those projects where things just didn’t line up. [laughs]

I want to talk about your educational trajectory from college to graduate school.  You mentioned you went to the University of Redlands where you got your…

BA in Theatre and then I went for my Master of Fine Arts in Acting at the University of Denver.  It was a two year program with summers included and that was really training to become a repertory actress.  And I loved the theatre department because they did musicals as well.  And we did Shakespeare, and lots of training in repertory literature with some fine professors.    

University of Redlands.  Photo courtesy of redlands.edu.
Any specific highlights or milestones you vividly remember from those years?  

It was a wonderful time of learning.  I also taught voice at that time because I was raising money to pay for college and I played piano for classes and that sort of thing.  What I remember most is the core of people and the achievements that we had.  I mean, this was a theatre program where all the costumes were built from design.  

I remember my training with John Powell who had worked significantly with the BBC in London.  He painted pictures on stage that were extraordinary.  I think it was during my MFA in Acting that I began to realize how interested I was in the directing aspects of theatre.  Largely because there were such great theatre directors there.  There were people who were "actor’s directors" who focused principally on the text and bringing that alive from the inside.  And then there were (like John Powell) directors of great pageantry and visual imagery and they directed in a very different way.  And then there was a third professor that I remember so clearly, Yayega Ziff.  She was with the Polish Lab Theatre and she gave us exercises and coached us in dialect and her insight into the characters was just on a whole different plane.  And very physically oriented.   

And then, I just started directing a couple projects myself there.  Even though I was in the acting program and required to be in all these productions, I started some outside multimedia directing and did some black box directing, too.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

PART 1 OF 4: AN INTERVIEW WITH KATHY BROMBACHER

The End of An Era:
As Moonlight wraps up its 32nd Season, its founder and ultimate “leading lady,” Artistic Director Kathy Brombacher, prepares to step down

By Donnie Matsuda

For the past thirty two years, the names “Moonlight” and “Kathy Brombacher” have been virtually synonymous.  The famed and fortunate leader of the Vista-based theatre company has had an incredible tenure as Artistic Director, taking the company from a small hilltop at Brengle Terrace Park – with no lights, no electricity, and no running water – and transforming it into the well-known and well-respected musical theatre institution that it is today, producing the highest caliber of theatre at two state-of-the-art locations.  Now that the long-time artistic chief is ready to hand over her reigns and officially retire, Brombacher sat down with me to reminisce about how it all began – her childhood growing up in Southern California, her early career as an actress and budding director, her move to the hills of Vista, and how the organization now know as Moonlight Stage Productions came to be.    

Kathy Brombacher, Founder and long-time Artistic Director of Moonlight Stage Productions.  Photo by John Koster.

PART 1: EARLY CHILDHOOD

Where were you born and raised?  

I was born and raised in the San Bernadino area of Southern California.  I was raised in Colton and went to Colton High School.  They call it the lovely Inland Empire.  [laughs]

Were your parents involved in showbiz?  

Not at all….well, my father was a musician and always played, up until 6 months before he passed away, in a band.  A small combo.  He came from the era of big bands and he played piano and was part of many music groups.  He was in the Air Force in World War II.  My mother played from music and my father played from cording and improvising.  So we had two pianists in the family growing up.  And I think all of us played piano, my brother took up the trombone, and we were the musical family singing in church.  We all sang harmonies and we read music and that sort of thing.  So, it was great at Christmas.  [laughs]  Essentially, that’s my background with a lot of music in it but no theatre growing up, until I went to college.

You mentioned one brother.  Older or younger?

Younger.  Everyone in the family is younger than I am.

And how many in the family?

I have three siblings.  A brother and two sisters.  My sister closest to me has passed away now.  

And are any of them involved in showbiz?

My younger sister sang with a dance band.  She sang in choirs in college and that sort of thing.  And up until recently she played the piano for church.  

I understand you got involved in dance at a very, very early age…tell me about your first time dancing onstage.

Well, it was sort of a disaster.  [laughs]  I thought it would be nice to take dance class and that was fine.  But when it came time to stand backstage and get ready to go on for my first recital … I just bolted.  I cried and I said “Get me out of here!” (or whatever I was saying as a child) and I think I was finally convinced to go onstage, but I was very, very unhappy!  [laughs]  So I just said “I quit!”  And I didn’t take dance classes again until college.  

How old were you at the time?

I think I was five years old.  And the idea of being dressed up in a tutu … ah… it just really frightened me.  I was very frightened.  

Not your thing, huh?

NOT my thing! 

How would you describe your childhood?

I was very engaged in academics.  I always wanted to be a good student.  My background was mostly spent in music programs.  I played clarinet growing up from junior high band through high school band, I also did choir during those times, and what was called “madrigals” (that’s a capella singing).  I was also in concert band, and marching band in high school, and I was in student government in high school.  The most important part of my time in high school was spent in journalism and writing.  I had a fabulous teacher who had almost gone to the Pasadena Playhouse.  She’s the woman, Christina DeBeeson is her name, who took me to my first professional play: she took a small group of students to the Pasadena Playhouse and she took me to the University of Redlands where the first play that I saw was “Death of a Salesman.”  And then we saw Shakespeare there.  So that exposure in high school, even though I didn’t really aspire at that time, really entrenched me and carried me away.  The power of Arthur Miller’s play was especially … I remember that had a huge impact.  

And then, our summers in that area, we had the open air Redlands Bowl concert.  And they usually did one musical a year.  This was in the town of Redlands which was close to me and is still a very vibrant cultural town.  They had the university, they had the symphony there, and the Redlands Bowl was an outdoor bowl where the association that put together the concert series believed that it should be free to the public.  So everything they did was free.  You could sit under the stars on the grass and hear great music, see a great musical, etc.   

The Redlands Bowl.  Photo by Mark Perrenoud.

And I have to say I was very much involved in church.  Being a camp counselor, I went on a missions tour, which took us up to the great fields of Delano and San Francisco learning about needs in the community.  As well as the inner city of Los Angeles.  This was in the 60’s when I was in high school and there was a lot going on … so my eyes were opened to a lot of things that the church was engaged in and needed to be involved in.  So I was grateful to a church that had its eyes open on the world and on society.  And I think that framed some parts of me. 

And can I ask what church you belonged to?

Yes, it was a United Methodist church. 

Ah, I grew up as a United Methodist myself.

Did you?  For Pete sakes!  I owe a great deal to those people who volunteered to be camp counselors.  I first was a camper and then a camp counselor and then was on staff teaching music.  So that was probably some of my first theatrical stuff.  In college, I got engaged right away in the theatre.  It was a small college at the University of Redlands, a great group of people.  I started as a music major and then moved to a theatre major right away at the end of my freshman year because of the people.  How exciting the atmosphere was!  And in a small college, you get to do everything.  You run the light board, you build the scenery, you do everything.  And I think that was a great way for me to embrace all the arts of theatre.  

Stay tuned for the remaining three parts of my interview with Kathy, posted over the next three days....

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD WHITE OF THE JEKYLL & HYDE NATIONAL TOUR

This is the Moment for a New “Jekyll & Hyde”:
An Interview with J&H’s Sir Danvers Carew as the revised musical kicks off its Broadway-bound tour in San Diego

By Donnie Matsuda

We haven’t heard much of Jekyll & Hyde lately. 

The dark and dramatic musical, based on the acclaimed novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and first introduced as a concept album in 1990 featuring Colm Wilkinson and Linda Eder, started in tour form with a 1995 road show co-produced by the Alley Theatre, 5th Avenue Musical Theatre and Theatre Under The Stars prior to its Broadway debut at the Plymouth Theatre in 1997.  Once on the Great White Way, Jekyll & Hyde played for four thrilling, chilling years (till 2001) and then virtually disappeared from American stages.  It did, however become somewhat of an international sensation with tours in the UK (2004), Brazil (2010), and Manila (2012), and over a dozen recordings from Germany, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Japan, among others.

The Cover of the 1997 Original Broadway Cast Recording.
Now, the musical about a London doctor with an evil alternate ego, is back in a new production that promises to be far sexier and even more stunning than previous incarnations.  This exciting new revival, with music by Frank Wildhorn and book & lyrics by two-time Oscar and Emmy winner Leslie Bricusse, is directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun and stars Tony Award nominee Constantine Maroulis in the dual title role, as well as Grammy-nominated R&B superstar Deborah Cox as Lucy.  This newly revised Jekyll & Hyde is currently in pre-tour previews at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and it will officially embark on a 25-week National Tour starting in San Diego, before returning to Broadway in the Spring of 2013.

And as the tour gets ready for its exhilarating premiere here at San Diego’s Civic Theatre starting October 2nd, I had the chance to chat with the man who plays Sir Danvers Carew, stage actor Richard White, who is perhaps best known as the voice of the villain Gaston in the animated Disney film, Beauty and the Beast.  In the years since his voiceover debut, he’s taken to many, many stages across the country, playing Lancelot in the National Tour of Camelot starring Robert Goulet, Joey in the Broadway production of The Most Happy Fella starring Giorgio Tozzi, and originating the title role of Erik in the world premiere of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s musical Phantom (his voice can still be heard on the show’s Premier Cast Recording). 

Richard White ... Then
Mr. White’s regional theatre roles include Jefferson and Rutledge in 1776, Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate, Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music, Curley in Oklahoma!, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance.  He has performed in New York City Opera productions of The Desert Song, The Merry Widow, Brigadoon, South Pacific, and The New Moon, and he also sang the role of Gaylord Ravenal in the Houston Grand Opera production of Show Boat.

Mr. White and I talked about a lot of random things, including how he got started in showbiz, his experiences filming Beauty and the Beast, the last show I saw him perform in (some sixteen years ago!), and his involvement in this most recent revival of Jekyll & Hyde.  Read on...

Richard White ... Now.
DONNIE: Where are you from and how did you get started performing on stage?

RICHARD: I was born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and was raised primarily in Pittsburgh. I have lived longer in New York than anywhere else, though.  My folks met singing for KDKA radio in Pittsburgh.  I just assumed that everyone's family sang all the time.  Community theater and high-school musicals sealed the deal for me.  Study at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Indiana School of Music helped me to know what I was doing.  Then, ultimately, I took the leap to New York and started "casting the net." 

DONNIE: You’re probably tired of people constantly referencing your work as Gaston in the Disney animated film “Beauty and the Beast.”  But I have to ask…how did you get that coveted role and any interesting experiences while “filming” that movie?

RICHARD: On the contrary, I never get tired of Disney references.  I'm quite proud of "B&B".  They held blind auditions where everyone was put on tape and the tapes were sent to Disney.  I was thrilled to get the part.  You knew you were part of a magnificent tradition.  We would record, then they would draw.  Then we would record again.  And again.  Collaborating back and forth.  All this over a period of a couple of years.  I was working on stage most of that time, so wherever I was, they would hire a studio.  The experience is kind of like an actor's sandbox.  You're in a room by yourself and are invited to be as creative as you can be.  Anything you could imagine … they could draw!  When I finally went into the trailer where Gaston's animators were working and they heard my voice, they all poked their heads out to see the person attached to the voice they had been animating for a couple of years.

DONNIE: You’ve done a number of roles at Sacramento Music Circus (I last saw you on stage in “Kismet” about 16 years ago).  Any favorite productions under the green and blue canvas tent?  Anything you miss about performing there during the summertime?  (No doubt you do *not* miss the three digit temperatures with no air conditioning!)

RICHARD: The Music Circus was great fun.  Summer Stock in the round in a tent!  It was a singular venue.  I think it may be the last tent in the country.  That “Kismet” with Michelle Pawk, a “Camelot” with Jimmy Brennan and Judy Blazer, and an “Oklahoma!” with Susan Powell (who has my heart to this day), come happily to mind.  You're right, though, about the heat.  In that “Kismet” I remember wearing satin and fake fur in 105 degree heat and the first rows getting soaked with my sweat. 

Richard White as Lancelot with Judy Blazer as Guenevere in Music Circus' 1994 production of "Camelot."  Photo courtesy of SS&T.
DONNIE: Out of the many roles you’ve played on stage (from Broadway to National Tours to regional productions), which are you proudest of and why?

RICHARD: That's always a very tough question to answer.  I will say that being involved in a new show as it is being written is very satisfying.  I'm quite proud of the work I did on the Yeston/Kopit "Phantom!" for that reason.

DONNIE: Where is “home” for you now?

RICHARD: New York

DONNIE: How did you get involved with this current tour of “Jekyll and Hyde”?  Is this your first association with the musical?

RICHARD: The old fashioned way.  I auditioned in New York.  This is my first association with this (Wildhorn) "Jekyll and Hyde," but I played Dr. Jekyll in the original production of a different musical called “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (music by Phil Hall).  Marc Kudish played Mr. Hyde.

Laird Mackintosh, Constantine Maroulis, and Richard White at opening night of the La Mirada pre-tour preview of "Jekyll & Hyde" on Sept 8, 2012.  Photo by Ryan Miller.
DONNIE: Tell me about this touring production (the third U.S. Tour of the musical which will kick off here in San Diego and end on the Great White Way in 2013) and about the character you play, Sir Danvers Carew.

RICHARD: This production is quite a bit different than any other of this show.  It is more streamlined, it rocks more, and the story is easier to follow.  We've kept all that was wonderful about the earlier productions and the creative staff has really juiced it up.  From my perspective, it is VERY juicy.  We're describing the atmosphere as "steam punk".  It is way cool.  Our director, Jeff Calhoun, is my new hero.  Sir Danvers has been described as the moral compass of the piece.  He's the chairman of the board of governors of the hospital where Dr. Jekyll works and the father of Jekyll's fiancĂ©.

DONNIE: Anything interesting you can tell us about fellow cast members Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox?

RICHARD: They're two of the nicest, most accessible colleagues you could hope to work with.  Not to mention that it is impossible to keep oneself out of the wings every time they open their mouths.  It is simply thrilling.  They also ooze sex appeal.  No, really.  I mean it.  This production is VERY hot!

DONNIE: Why should San Diegans come see Jekyll and Hyde?

RICHARD: Be there or be square.  It is a raucous good time.  Cool to see, thrilling to hear!  And did I mention, VERY hot!

Richard White and Teal Wicks at opening night of the La Mirada pre-tour preview of "Jekyll & Hyde" on Sept 8, 2012.  Photo by Ryan Miller.
Thank you, Richard, for taking time to answer my questions!  Break a leg on the tour…

For more information about the "Jekyll & Hyde" San Diego engagement, visit www.broadwaysd.com.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THEATRE NEWS: Mo`olelo Announces 2013 Season

MO`OLELO ANNOUNCES 2013 SEASON
Award-winning theater company announces ninth season featuring A MOXIE co-production of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye adapted by Lydia Diamond, Extraordinary Chambers by David Wiener, The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey

SAN DIEGO, CA (September 25, 2012)– Award Winning Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company is pleased to announce its 2013 season of three plays: The Bluest Eye adapted by Lydia Diamond, playwright of Stick Fly, from the novel by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison in co-production with MOXIE Theatre; Extraordinary Chambers by David Wiener, winner of the LA drama critics circle Ted Schmitt Award and Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre’s 2010 New Play Award, and The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey said by the New York Times to be “a remarkable piece of writing”.

This season marks Mo`olelo’s second three-play season and the beginning of Executive Artistic Director Seema Sueko’s 16 month in-depth mentorship with Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington DC, thanks to her receiving the Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) prestigious inaugural “Leadership U(niversity) One-On-One Grant, a $75,000 award. Jessica Bird, former San Diego REP Casting Director & Artistic Associate and local director, will serve as Interim General and Producing Manager during Sueko’s working sabbatical.


Mo`olelo’s 2013 Season will open with a Mo`olelo-MOXIE Theatre co-production of Lydia Diamond’s adaption of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye (February 2-March 3, 2013), marking the first collaboration of two of San Diego’s top women-led theaters. The Bluest Eye tells the story of one year in the life of a young black girl in 1940s Ohio. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove wants nothing more than to be loved by her family and schoolmates. Left to fend for herself, she blames her dark skin and prays for blue eyes, sure that love will follow. From the playwright of Mo`olelo's 2011 production of Stick Fly, The Bluest Eye paints a portrait of the legacy of racism on a young girl’s psyche.


The summer months will bring Executive Artistic Director Seema Sueko back to the west coast to direct David Weiner’s award-winning Extraordinary Chambers (June 6-30, 2013) starring Greg Watanabe from Mo`olelo’s Yellow Face and How I Got that Story casts. Extraordinary Chambers is the story of an American couple who travel to Cambodia for an innocent business trip, but become personally entangled with Khmer Rouge victims and survivors. The genocide, complicity, survival, and greed collide in this play that shines a light on the Cambodian experience and asks how far are we willing to go to survive?


The season will end with Jessica Dickey’s tale of forgiveness, The Amish Project (September 26- October 20, 2013), with the directorial debut of Jessica Bird, Mo`olelo’s Interim General & Producing Manager. The Amish Project is an extraordinary, fictional, one-woman play inspired by the 2006 Nickel Mines shooting in Pennsylvania. In the wake of a mass shooting in an Amish schoolhouse, the Amish community immediately reached out to the shooter’s family with compassion when others did not. The play explores the tightrope intersection of grief, rage, and forgiveness, and asks which path do you take?

“This is an exciting time at Mo`olelo,” shared Ms. Sueko. “As we step into the ninth year at Mo`olelo, we’re embarking on an exciting journey of growth, national recognition and anticipation for our 10th anniversary in 2014.”  “The plays selected for 2013 all possess a beautiful poetic quality, drawing us close as they expose the danger and beauty of humanity,” added Ms. Bird.

Tickets to Mo`olelo’s 2013 Season are currently available by subscription only. Subscription prices range from $45 - $90 and may be purchased online by visiting http://moolelo.net/2013-season/ or by calling 619-342-7395.
 

Monday, September 24, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Sweeney Todd" at Moonlight Stage Productions

God, it’s good!:
Moonlight takes a stab (and a few slashes) at Sondheim in its dark and demonically-delightful season-closer 

By Donnie Matsuda

Just take one look at the publicity pictures for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and you can tell that Moonlight’s production, which plays at the outdoor amphitheatre now through October 6, will be unlike any stage version of the 1979 musical masterwork you’ve ever seen before.

That’s because director Steve Glaudini’s vision is one of a younger, creepier, and more internally angst-ridden barber who, filled with equal parts rage and revenge, keeps a tight lid on his emotions because he’s been beaten down by the injustices of his past (with both his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna wrongly taken away from him).  It is no surprise then, that he is easily bullied and manipulated by the much more strong-willed, pie-curious proprietor, Mrs. Lovett.  As kooky as she is ruthless, the maternal mastermind of this revival is harsher and more brazen than traditional interpretations and she can easily be summed up in three words: Helena Bonham Carter.  Yes, for his Moonlight staging, Glaudini takes his inspiration directly from the 2007 Tim Burton film, with both impressive and intriguing results.  

Robert J. Townsend as Sweeney (foreground) and Bets Malone as Mrs. Lovett (background).  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Based on a melodramatic play by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd is a musical thriller created by musician and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.  Sondheim, along with librettist Hugh Wheeler, adapted Bond’s play to tell the story of Benjamin Barker who returns to 19th century London after being banished to a far-off prison colony for fifteen years on a trumped-up charge.  When Barker (returning under the alias of Sweeney Todd) finds out that his wife has poisoned herself and that the corrupt judge who exiled him now has his daughter, Johanna, he becomes obsessed with seeking revenge on a town and on a world that has done him wrong.  With the help of his right hand woman, Mrs. Lovett, and his left hand razor, Sweeney becomes the consummate “demon barber,” as he slits the throats of unknowing customers and sends their bodies down the hatch to be ground up and baked into savory and sweet “meat” pies.  

Sweeney Todd has been touted as Sondheim’s “masterpiece among masterpieces.”  It originally opened on Broadway in 1979 and in the West End in 1980, winning both the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.  In the many years since, it has been revived and awarded countless times, with its most recent London revival opening in 2004 and its most recent Broadway revival opening in 2005.  Both revivals were directed by John Doyle and employed a 10-person cast that played the score themselves on musical instruments they carried around the stage.  There have also been numerous opera house productions (including three New York City Opera runs in 1984, 1986, and 2004) as well as several concert stagings (most notably the Kelsey Grammer-Christine Baranski “Reprise!” concert version in LA and the George Hearn-Patti LuPone semi-staged concert version in NY and SF, the latter of which was immortalized on DVD).  And, of course, the 2007 Johnny Depp-Helena Bonham Carter film version which brought a sexier, more sultry version of Sweeney to mainstream audiences all across America.    

Randall Dodge as Judge Turpin and Jason W. Webb as Beadle Bamford.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Thus, reviving such a masterpiece of American musical theatre is certainly not an easy task to pull off, but thankfully, Moonlight’s Glaudini has a lot of source material at his (ahem) “disposal” and he also has an ace cast of stage veterans who thoughtfully (ahem) “flesh out” all their creepy characters with ease.  At the helm of it all is golden-voiced, bass-baritone Robert J. Townsend as the throat-slitting barber, who manages to ignore many of the famous Sweeneys who have come before him (Len Cariou, Bob Gunton, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris, and Johnny Depp just to name a few), and instead, makes the role his own.  Looking as pale as a ghost with dark Gothic highlights, Townsend shows a softer side of Sweeney as he slowly pulls away the layers of protective armor to reveal the terribly tortured soul underneath it all.  Every bit his equal is the devilishly droll Bets Malone as the half-crazed, half-crude Mrs. Lovett.  When Malone takes the stage, she owns it and steals every single scene she is in.  Her spot-on solo, “By the Sea” is easily the best number in the entire production, and her brilliantly realized, tongue-in-cheek duet with Townsend, “A Little Priest,” is a close second.

As the two young lovers, Anthony Carillo shines as Anthony Hope and Joanna Holliman sings exquisitely as Johanna.  Together, they share some playful onstage chemistry that is only topped by the impressive timbre of their pitch-perfect pipes, which are elegantly showcased in “Johanna,” “Kiss Me,” and “Quartet.”  Randall Dodge lends a certain suaveness, rather than slime, as the detestable Judge Turpin and Jason W. Webb is a portly Beadle Bamford who is as foppish as he is conniving.  And the eager and dim-witted Tobias is played to perfection by a smooth-voiced Jordan Aragon.  In smaller roles, Jason Maddy is both entertaining and intriguing as the flamboyant Italian barber, Adolfo Pirelli, and Jessica Bernard as the Beggar Woman is appropriately frazzled and mentally fractured, as we see in an oddly pantomimed segment before her throat is finally slit. 

Joanna Holliman as Johanna and Anthony Carillo as Anthony Hope.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
The rest of the large ensemble cast (19 members in all) provides outstanding vocal support, and, singing gloriously together, they do more than justice to the intricate and magnificent harmonies interwoven throughout the thundering Sondheim score.  One does wish their staging could have been as seamless as their singing, however.  Instead, they scurry onstage for each group number, sing their verses straight to the audience, and then disperse as inelegantly as possible.  Not to mention, the overlapping nature of Sondheim’s lyrics make it virtually impossible for their individual lyrics to be understood (which would be the case no matter how good the sound or how perfect the diction), so they do end up sounding like a muddled mess throughout most of their numbers…but what a gorgeously harmonized mess they create!

While Glaudini’s characters borrow quite a bit from the film version, his technical elements are more in line with Hal Prince’s massively-scaled 1979 Broadway production.  The set designed and built by Citrus College is evocative and sparse with a large central cube that rotates to reveal the rooms within Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and houses Sweeney’s barber stuff (including a fascinating hair-cutting and hair-raising “ejection chair”) up top.  Behind and around it are large stairs and scaffolds that constantly get moved about and framing it all is a large stationary backdrop that evokes an old-fashioned etching of a London street scene.  These scenic elements are eerily lit by Jean-Yves Tessier, while Chris Luessmann provides plenty of spooky sounds and shrill whistles in his bloodcurdling sound design.  And while most of the tattered costumes are rented from the Theatre Company in Upland, costume designer Renetta Lloyd provides some special and spiffy designs just for Mr. Todd and Mrs. Lovett.

Bets Malone and Robert J. Townsend.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Last but certainly not least, Musical Director and Conductor Elan McMahan deserves major kudos for handling the complex Sondheim score with such power and panache.  McMahan and her lush 24-piece orchestra blast through the rich, angular harmonies of this, one of the most challenging scores in the musical theatre cannon, without missing a beat – or a note- and their full, collective effect is truly “to die for.”    
    
While Moonlight’s production may not necessarily be true to the spirit of the original Sweeney Todd, it remains a remarkable revival and one that will impress with its sheer vocal prowess, its edgier and more thrilling conceit, and its incredibly rich orchestrations.  Much like the sought-after meat pies that emerge in Act Two, this Sweeney Todd is an acquired taste, filled with savory bits and satisfying songs that will no doubt leave you wanting more.  

Things to know before you go: Sweeney Todd plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre through October 6, 2012.  Running time is 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesday through Sunday nights (no performances on October 3 and October 7).  Curtain is at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.