Stray Dog And St. Louis Shakespeare Bring Musical Tragedy And Classic Comedy To Local Stages

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

The Gods of Comedy and Tragedy bring their wares to our town with “Sweeney Todd” and “The Comedy Of Errors.” Both are worthy productions that show off both Stray Dog Theatre and St. Louis Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved and clever comedies- at St. Louis Shakespeare Company- brings two sets of twin brothers together after years of separation with hilarious results. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio, are living a fine life until their long lost twin brothers come to town from Syracuse where they have lived since being parted in a shipwreck many years ago. As the father of the two “Antipholi” decries to the Duke of Ephesus, he is merely visiting from Syracuse in an attempt to track down his other twin son. High jinks with Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, happen when she mistakes the Syracusian of being her husband and the low brow comedy continues with mistaken identities and confusion until everything is resolved at the final curtain.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

Meanwhile, not too far away at Tower Grove Abbey is the Stray Dog Theatre production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Further underscored as a musical thriller, we meet Sweeney as he arrives back home in 1846 London where he was framed and sent to prison by the nefarious Judge Turpin who coveted Sweeney’s wife Lucy. Sweeney was then know as Benjamin Barker and one of his old cohorts, Mrs. Lovett recognizes him and they spark a relationship which ends up with some throat-cutting of local citizens with Sweeney’s old, faithful razors and then Mrs. Lovett cleverly concocting some very special meat pies for her bakery from the victims. It all ends like any tragedy, musical or not, with a whole lot of blood- only this time with singing!

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James

Back to “Comedy,” director Shaun Sheley has given some broad slapstick and appropriate silliness to this version and it works well. The physical humor works with the story very well and the twins, in looks and costuming, are very convincing. Chuck Winning is a charming and confused Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio is the delightful Michael Pierce. For the Syracuse branch of each family, we have Shane Signorino is Antipholus and Zac McMillan is his Dromio.

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James

Frankie Ferrari is the Ephesus wife, Adriana while her sister Luciana is played by Jamie McKitrick, who eventually falls for the Syracuse Artipholus and poor Syracuse Dromio is stalked by the Ephesus Dromio’s Rubenesque wife. Fine work as well from Dan McGee as Egeon, Erick Lindsey as the Duke, Margeau Steinau as the Abbess, Ben Ritchie in multiple roles and a whole town of involved citizens.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

Strong singing voices dominate “Sweeney Todd” as Johnathan Hey leads the way with his towering presence and beautiful handling of the famously tough Stephen Sondheim music and rhythms. This version, which could be called “Teeny, Meany Sweeney” (teeny for the space, meany for Mr. Hey’s maniacal looks), works so well because of the close proximity to actors and audience which always highlights a Stray Dog production. The townsfolk rambling up and down the aisles and the main actors also using the audience space really makes it frightening at times.

Lavonne Byers continues her winning ways (winner of Best Actress in this years’ Circle Awards) with her precocious rendition of Mrs. Lovett. Her sweetly evil charm relies mainly on that charm and humor to win us over to a pretty despicable character. Cole Gutmann brings a strong singing voice to Sweeney’s new friend, Anthony, who falls in love with Johanna Barker (Sweeney’s daughter who is also ward to Judge Turpin). Eileen Engel is a lovely Johanna with a sweet singing voice as well. Connor Johnson is charming as the young Toby who Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing after the demise of his companion, Adolfo Pirelli, Barber to Kings, played with panache by Tyler Cheatem. Gerry Love as Judge Turpin and Mike Wells as Beadle Bamford make an amusing pair and Kay Love is saucy as the Beggar Lady who is involved in the plot twist at musical’s end.

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James

A simple yet effective set for “Comedy of Errors” is the work of Scott McDonald and James Spurlock’s lights add the right touch. Annalise Webb designed the fun costumes which include matching ones for both Antipholus’s and Dromio’s.  At Sweeney, the intricate, two story set is the work of Rob Lippert which includes a clever “delivery system” for Sweeney’s customers. The Tyler Duenow lights are eerie and effective while costume designer Ryan Moore has done a great job including dressing Sweeney like a 1940’s dock worker to make him even more menacing.

Director Justin Been has given us an even darker Sweeney that we’ve seen before using the powerful frame of Jonathan Hey to full advantage. With a fairly large ensemble, he manages to keep controlled chaos the order of the day, particularly during the “City On Fire” sequence toward the end of Act II. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street,” runs through April 22nd at Stray Dog Theatre. Call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information. “Comedy Of Errors” has already closed but St. Louis Shakespeare returns with a new season in August.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

As always, there’s a lot of theatre in St. Louis and St. Louis Shakespeare and Stray Dog Theatre are examples of the great work done in our town. Support them and the other companies that bring great works to our stages.

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