Mash-ups from Heart & Dagger Productions are always a hoot: Cross dressing performers skewer popular musicals without mercy, so I assumed they would be sending up SWEENEY TODD with the usual suspects. Not so! SWEENEY—which, alas, ends this weekend—is their first legit musical with a professional orchestra AND they put it all together for a song. When you don’t have a lot of money to throw at a project, you rely heavily on invention and imagination. You don’t need bells and whistles. (Well, you do need that bone chilling whistle, I grant you that.)
Mind you, Heart & Dagger still has a few tricks up their collective sleeves (like an actress playing the bloodthirsty Sweeney). The story is well told, extremely well sung and the toddler swing set (with slide), it turns out, is all you need to set up a barber shop. Just to be clear, Kiki Samko doesn’t make Sweeney female. She sports a male costume, fluffy sideburns like the caricature on the Broadway playbill, and she’s lowered her voice an octave (which is mighty hard on the tonsils). Even though I knew from the press release that it was Samko, it took me a few seconds to wrap my mind around the absolutely male character in front of me. It was she, almost completely unrecognizable.
Director Joey C. Pelletier is fortunate to have singers with wide ranging capabilities, like James Sims who can carry off the high soprano role (Johanna) as well as the tenor part (Anthony) and this being Heart & Dagger, they have him sing both, sharing the gender bending with Meghan Edge since Johanna and Anthony have a bunch of duets. Wigs are the big indicator in this production.
Music Director Michael Amaral has a modest five piece ensemble (and a nifty kettle drum which does double duty when Mrs. Lovett rolls out her piecrust on it) sounding like a whole orchestra. Best of all, H&D has Melissa Barker as the purveyor of “the worst pies in London.” I’m still amazed that they pulled off one of Sondheim’s most difficult and dissonant musicals with sheer will and an abundance of talent.
When you do have the money for a lavish musical like MAME, (playing @ Stoneham Theatre through Dec. 23rd), you can afford to throw a dozen Equity performers at it. Director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins has rounded up a passel of Boston’s best character actors to punch up the creaky Jerry Herman musical: We’re supposed to be scandalized when an innocent child is handed over to his boozy, bohemian aunt. And we’re supposed to be shocked when the boy’s nanny throws caution to the wind and winds up pregnant, (gasp) out of wedlock but it’s pretty hard to shock an audience nowadays, when marihuana has been legalized for recreational use.
What makes Stoneham’s MAME tick despite the dated story, are the familiar songs (Kathy St. George as Mame and Mary Callanan as Vera sing the heck out of “Bosom Buddies” and St. George delivers a lovely “If He Walked into My Life”) AND the familiar stock characters, chiefly Ceit Zweil as the frumpy nanny and Margaret Ann Brady as the ferocious, prospective mother-in-law. Will McGarrahan, especially, adds warmth to the production as the Southern gent smitten by St. George.
Robbins and music director Matthew Stern get fine work, too, from Cameron Levesque as the little boy who comes to live with and love his Auntie Mame. Having seen the ten year old give stellar performances in several musicals of late, I can say without reserve that he’s an actor who’s going places. As they say, children and animals always steal any scene they’re in so I have to mention a little fox who manages to escape the hunt and wag his tail as the humans set about to ride to the hounds. (I haven’t been so amused by a fox since THE RULING CLASS!)