Review: 'Sweeney Todd' by the Warner Theatre Performance Lab

Nancy Sasso Janis

“Who is this Sondheim and why does he hate us this much?!?” - various Performance Lab students at Warner Theatre Center for Arts Education
Torrington, CT - Isabel Carrington, the director and instructor of the Warner Theatre Performance Lab for the last 14 years, never shies away from a challenge. Ever. This year she decided to return to Victorian London for another production of ‘Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and, despite some initial complaining, her oldest students once again rose to the challenge. “With this production, my Performance Lab students have traveled where even seasoned professionals fear to venture - and they have grown leaps and bounds along the way. For that, and all their patience and tooth-and-nail perseverance,  I am over the moon with gratitude and awe,” the brave director writes in her notes in the program. More about one seasoned professional to follow.
‘Sweeney Todd’ is a musical thriller that features music and lyrics by the musical genius, and often unforgiving, Stephen Sondheim, with a book by Hugh Wheeler. While the musical numbers are incredibly challenging, so are the acting requirements for the unique characters that populate the streets where mischief lurks around every corner. The story of the psychopathic barber and the equally demented Mrs. Lovett is demanding in so many ways, not the least of which are the required elements of the dark set. Set designer Les Ober once again made it happen at the flipped version of the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre with a set that I will not soon forget. 
The first strains of the orchestra set the tone and the strong opening number gave me chills. The elements of horror were effectively done but thankfully, not gory. While some of the higher notes were out of the vocal range of a few of the singers, they managed to pull off the musical gymnastics. The rectangular main section of the set was rotated to reveal various areas of the Fleet street building and included the barbershop on the upper level. Ms. Carrington made many smart staging decisions that contributed to the mood of the piece; even actors and crew members walking to their entrance spots added to the feel of a gloomy Victorian street.
Warner Theatre teenaged veteran Connor Picard took on the demanding role of the demon barber in the latest in his over 50 shows with the Warner. He possesses the acting chops to pull off the role and sang very well. Mr. Picard will graduate from the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and attend Marymount Manhattan College for directing in the fall. Before he leaves for college, he will direct ‘A Year with Frog and Toad Kids’ with the Warner Summer Arts Program.
Morgan Rinaldi, a sophomore at Lewis S. Mills HS, never let go of the character of Mrs. Lovett and did especially well with the comic elements of her role. Catherine MacKay, a Farmington HS senior, capped off her Plab performances with a very strong take on the role of the ever-present Beggar Woman.
Trevor Rinaldi, another young man who has grown up on the Warner stage, played young Tobias Ragg. Thaddeus Asheim made his Plab debut as the earnest Anthony Hope. Veronica Johnson, now a rising senior at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, used her immaculate soprano for the role of Johanna. Cameron Turner, a sixteen-year-old Gilbert School student, was Beadle Bamford and Jacob Honig (Seymour in ‘Little Shop’) played Pirelli with great flourish. Mr. Honig will head to George Washington University in the fall. Charlie Rau was the scary Jonas Fogg and Conio Lopardo was the bird seller. Vienna Moura appeared briefly as a well-dressed little girl and company members included Alyssa Archambault, Jacob Asheim, Katie Locassio, Allison Rau and Emily Russell.
The students in the cast had the opportunity to work with community theatre actor (and husband of the director) Bif Carrington in the role of the creepy Judge Turpin. I always appreciate Mr. Carrington’s performances and this one was most memorable.  His wonderful acting and soaring singing voice could not have been better, yet he never overshadowed the hard work of his young castmates. 
Dawn Marie Conroy was the music director and conducted Beckie Wallace on the keyboard (sounding like a pipe organ at times) and eight other musicians and five members of the pit chorus that sat stage left behind one part of the set. Katie Brunetto, a member of the pit chorus, did the choreography and Mr. Ober served as technical director and lighting designer (I loved both) and Chris LaPlante worked his magic in sound design. Victorian costumes by Michelle Rinaldi worked well with hair and makeup by Makayla Kordas, Katie Locascio and Emily Creighton and wigs by the director. That makeup and hair made some actors difficult to recognize because it was that good.

Photos by Lüke Haughwøut