Sweeney's a Sweet Success

Phillip Duggins, Masquerade Theatre's founder and producer, has lots of chutzpah -- you have to give him that. How else can you explain the audacity this tiny, aspiring theater group had to choose Sweeney Todd as its second season-opener? Fortunately, Duggins also has talent, and apparently lots of it. He has consistently managed to pull big, gorgeous sounds from his singers in virtually all the musicals the theater has produced. And Sweeney Todd, difficult as it is to mount, is no exception.

Both the music and the lyrics in this 1979 Tony Award-winning play were written by Stephen Sondheim. And both are complicated, strikingly melancholic and lovely examples of musical theater at its absolute best. The story is about Sweeney Todd (L. Jay Meyer). He is a barber on Fleet Street who loses his family and his freedom to an evil judge, only to return years later seeking revenge. To that end, Todd sets up shop with his razors (his "friends") and starts to kill. Mrs. Lovett (Gina Nespoli-Holmes), his landlady, who runs the meat-pie shop downstairs, is able to put all those cadavers to good use in her pies.

But even as the play gets funnier, it gets grislier and sadder. Todd, obsessed with revenge, learns of his daughter's whereabouts but does nothing to save her. All he wants to do is kill the man who stole her. And of course, the man he hurts the most, in the end, is himself.

Meyer's Todd is an always dark and serious man made even more powerful by the strength of his voice. Nespoli-Holmes is quite strong playing a character who is almost cartoonishly silly. Somehow, the two very disparate approaches work together. The chorus is also quite strong, made so in part through the direction of Duggins and the musical direction of Andrew Dixon. In fact, the only disappointments come in the thin voices and thin acting of Brent Smith and Sarah Wuensche, who play the ingenuous lovers Anthony and Johanna.

Those who have not yet seen a production at the Masquerade Theatre are missing out on one of Houston's best new theaters. Masquerade has produced some of the most exciting musicals seen here all year.

The Ensemble Theatre must live by that old adage: Save the best for last. For Johnny B. Goode, Thomas Meloncon's salute to the blues and to the unknown men who created it, is by far the best production of the Ensemble's season.

Set in the 1950s in Port Arthur, Texas, Johnny B. Goode is in part about the demise of the sad, lowdown, moaning blues. The play's central character, Johnny A. Goode, longs for the glory days of the old-time blues. He still plays his guitar in his own rundown roadside blues joint, but everybody's now going to a nearby bar ruled by boogie-woogie dance tunes.

Johnny A. despises the newfangled music so much that he ran off his own son because the boy wanted an electric guitar. Son Johnny B. drives home seven years later as a musical success, to the dislike of the senior Goode. His son has become everything he hates and everything he ever wanted to be. The blues and all its variations become a sort of metaphor for the terribly sad gap that grows between generations. This new script is strong, though flawed by a red herring that makes the ending melodramatic and frustrating.

As good as the script is, the cast and the director, Ed Muth, make it even better. The Ensemble has repeatedly brought together what may be the strongest group of male actors in the city. Wayne DeHart's Johnny A. is complemented by Byron Jacquet, as the easygoing Red Dog, and Sterling Vappie, as the scheming Duce. Michael Washington, as Sleepy, manages to make gold from the most poorly written character in the play.

The Alley is again producing its summer chills series. Sherlock's Last Case, by Charles Marowitz, is mostly about Watson (James Black), who wants his day in the limelight. Sherlock (John Feltch) is a hateful, name-calling miser -- a boss anyone would want to poison. What Watson does about his bad boss is the crux of this predictable play.

There's trickery, murder and an old-lady cook played with terrific joy by Marjorie Carroll, but nothing truly surprising or exciting. The man next to me perused the program and exclaimed proudly to his date that he knew every character on the list. To all the Sherlock Holmes fans contemplating a night at the theater, you'll likely find the book a lot more fun.

Sweeney Todd runs through September 6 at Masquerade Theatre, 720 West 11th, 861-7045. Johnny B. Goode runs through August 16 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055. Sherlock's Last Case runs through August 2 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8421.


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