Theater review: Lea Salonga totally kills it in wild, dystopic 'Sweeney Todd'

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 12 2019 04:57 PM | Updated as of Oct 12 2019 05:54 PM

MANILA -- More than a week before “Sweeney Todd” opened at The Theater at Solaire on Friday night, lead actress Lea Salonga took to social media with a reminder to herself — which could also serve as a warning to those planning to watch this much-loved Stephen Sondheim revenge drama.

“We can’t please everybody. It is wholly unreasonable to expect that everyone will love the work we do. There might be an outcry from purists that may say, ‘How dare they do this to something so beloved!’” she wrote.

“But art cannot exist in a vacuum, and a 40-year-old work shouldn’t be considered a museum piece. It is relevant, timeless and timely, so reexamination to peel off layers and discover new things is required from its director, cast and creative team.”

As soon as you enter The Theater at Solaire, one is immediately greeted by a set that clearly communicates that director Bobby Garcia isn’t going for the minimalist Victorian England design of the 1979 Broadway staging with its moving bridges and walkways.

Theater review: Lea Salonga totally kills it in wild, dystopic 'Sweeney Todd' 1
Lea Salonga and Jett Pangan lead the cast of 'Sweeney Todd.' Handout

With junkyard cars hanging on collapsed concrete against a backdrop of an abandoned asylum, there’s almost a post-apocalyptic feel to the set, as the cast with flashlights enter the stage one by one, looking around this dark spooky place — which could well be the great black pit inhabited by the vermin of the world, as Todd laments in “No Place Like London.”

There they find an old boom box, plays it and the creepy strains of Sondheim’s organ prelude creak through the sound system before erupting into a robust “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which sets the story of a barber wrongfully accused and exiled just because a judge took a fancy for his beautiful wife. After 15 years and using a new name, he returns to London to seek revenge.

Near the end of this classic opener, lead stars Salonga and Jett Pangan make their wickedly cinematic entrance in an old Chevrolet El Camino, like a deranged Bonnie and Clyde, as they take their spots on centerstage in this drastically re-imagined retelling of this decades-old Broadway classic.

The hybrid vehicle, part car and part pickup truck, is actually the centerpiece of the set. The front hood doubles as the counter for Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, while the pick-up bed functions as the barber shop.

While the story itself retains its Victorian setting and references, the entire design (set by Tony awardee David Gallo, lights by Aaron Porter, sound by Justin Stasiw, costumes by Rajo Laurel, and hair and make up by Leslie Espinosa) paints a “future” that’s just as bleak and wretched, with the actors sporting punk-ish looks like evil ghosts that continue to roam and haunt as they tell their story.

Theater review: Lea Salonga totally kills it in wild, dystopic 'Sweeney Todd' 2
Lea Salonga and Jett Pangan in a scene from 'Sweeney Todd.' Handout

Yet at the same time, this undated setting underscores the timeless quality of Sondheim’s work, which is celebrating its 40th year since it debuted on Broadway. Its main theme of revenge brought about by injustice sadly remains relevant, and its macabre sense of social justice could well be the ultimate revolt against the powerful elite.

“The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above. How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below,” Todd sings in the deliciously sinister “A Little Priest” that ends Act 1

I have to admit that I miss that iconic barber’s chair of the original production — after slitting the throat of his unassuming victim, Todd pulls a lever and the dead body slides down a trapdoor straight into the pie shop’s basement. Garcia devised a theatrical staging using lights, sound and “walking dead” that’s lacking in awe even if it works and actually appropriate given the overall haunting quality of this production.

Garcia’s bold reimagining of “Sweeney Todd” is ultimately a matter of personal taste but there is not much argument when it comes to much of his casting choices. “Sweeney Todd” is notorious for its complicated score and the entire cast from Salonga and Pangan to the members of the lean ensemble are all undoubtedly talented singers.

Theater review: Lea Salonga totally kills it in wild, dystopic 'Sweeney Todd' 3
Lea Salonga and Jett Pangan in a scene from 'Sweeney Todd.' Handout

While the top-notch vocals were pretty much expected from the star-studded cast — watch out for the ever hilarious and scene-stealing Nyoy Volante as the rival barber Pirelli — there were still several surprises, like his wife Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, who showed off another facet of her diverse talent. After her brassy performance as Cynthia Weil in “Beautiful,” here she showcases a lilting soprano as the encaged ward Johanna that blends well with Gerald Santos’ effortless crooning as the lovestruck sailor Anthony.

Also flaunting varying techniques in his vocal arsenal was Arman Ferrer, who made full use of his limited stage time as the devious but musically inclined Beadle Bamford, and even as ensemble member. As his boss, the detestable Judge Turpin, baritone Andrew Fernando’s voice had a stirring and rich texture, especially in his unsettling solo, “Mea Culpa,” and in the duet “Pretty Women,” with Pangan.

Luigi Quesada as the young Tobias gets to sing the musical’s most popular tune, “Not While I’m Around,” and impresses with his clarity of diction and precise singing.

Garcia admitted that Pangan was his only choice to play the murderous barber and indeed, the frontman of the legendary rock band The Dawn displays tremendous vocal power and control from the get-go. Compared to his maniacal turn in “Jekyll and Hyde,” Pangan went for a more brooding portrayal. His Todd isn’t so much a crazed killer, consumed with burning anger. Instead, his Todd suggests a more devil-may-care attitude, tinged with gnawing fatigue and a growing resignation about what he has become.

Theater review: Lea Salonga totally kills it in wild, dystopic 'Sweeney Todd' 4
Lea Salonga in a scene from 'Sweeney Todd.' Handout

But the musical’s biggest surprise actually turned out to be Salonga. Mrs. Lovett has always been portrayed as a mere, quirky accomplice in Todd’s killing spree but Salonga made her his equal. In fact, Mrs. Lovett could well be the greater evil, egging on Todd to murder to ensure an abundant supply of meat for her floundering pie shop, and at the same time to win his heart. Salonga made this perfectly clear, and delivered this with an unwavering accent and crystalline tones that turned her numbers, especially “By the Sea,” into unexpected show-stoppers. So mesmerizing was her performance that oftentimes you forget that she's the country's "Broadway diva" as she disappears into this loud devil woman. This is by far the best musical theater outing of Salonga in the Philippines, post-“Miss Saigon,” and the very long wait was well worth it.

“Sweeney Todd” caps Manila’s three-show Sondheim festival on a glorious note — a risky retelling of a very dark story, sung with such power and exuberance by a remarkable assembly of truly vocally gifted performers.

“Sweeney Todd” runs until October 27 at The Theatre at Solaire.