REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
In just a few short years on Ventura County stages, Andrew Metzger has proved himself to be a master of physical comedy in the tradition of such classic clowns as Zero Mostel and John Belushi. In shows such as Godspell, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and The Fantasticks, Metzger has drawn audiences’ attention through his wild-eyed mugging, varied voice characterizations, and superb comic timing. One question remained: can he do drama?
The answer came last week as Metzger played his first starring role in a musical. Never guilty of shying away from a challenge, Metzger took on one of the most unforgiving, challenging parts any actor in the musical theatre can attempt: Stephen Sondheim’s razor-wielding barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. The Ventura College Opera and Musical Theatre Department’s production of Sweeney Todd, directed by Brian Hotchkin, concluded a four-day run last weekend, and at the closing performance, Metzger and the cast received one of the most vociferous, ear-splitting ovations that we’ve ever seen from an audience in Ventura County theater.
Metzger was a gargoyle of a Todd. Decked out with hellish eye make-up, graying sideburns, and a hunchbacked-like presence, Metzger’s Todd is deranged from the outset of the play, when he broods with devilish understatement, “My mind is far from easy.” Most actors who have played Todd make the character capable of civility and even charm at certain points in the show, but Metzger chose not to underplay it and is an unbalanced wacko right from the very beginning.
When he is given his set of old razors by Mrs. Lovett, he thrusts one in the air in exultation, pronouncing, “At last, my arm is complete!” With Metzger, it’s more of a demented shriek. In “My Friends,” probably Sondheim’s creepiest song in his entire ouevre, Todd sings of his razors as one would croon to a lover, but Metzger growls every word, making it a different kind of chilling. In “Epiphany,” after he has let the immoral Judge Turpin slip through his fingers, Todd goes off the deep end and becomes completely unglued. Metzger was simply electrifying at this horrific moment in the show.
Of course, Metzger’s comic abilities weren’t totally submerged, even for this satanic character. In “A Little Priest,” you can see the comic timing and humor come through, without totally dispensing with Todd’s seething yen for vengeance. One great line he delivers especially well is when the bullying Beadle, played by A. J. Herrera, comes to Todd’s tonsorial parlor for a shave. With a courtly bow, Metzger can barely restrain his gleeful bloodlust and puts a perfectly placed pause in the sentence, “I’m entirely at….your disposal,” with one of his best Belushi eyebrow lifts, resulting in unnerving chuckling from the audience.
Metzger’s performance wasn’t the whole story in Sweeney Todd – he wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if he had not had the help of an exemplary supporting cast. As Mrs. Lovett, Macaria Chaparro Martinez was wonderful, especially in her own psychotically funny asides. As an example, after Metzger’s cyclonic performance of “Epiphany,” Martinez waits a beat and then says, in her lower class Cockney accent, “Ah, that’s all well and good,” which lets the air out of the tense balloon. They made for a beautifully perverse couple and worked splendidly together.
James Graham was magnificent as the simpleton apprentice Tobias, especially in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and his unsettling scene in the tumultuous finale. Adrien Roberts was excellent as the mysterious Beggar Woman, showcasing a beautiful operatic soprano when the part called for it. In other major roles, Josh Stover was delightfully simple-minded as Anthony, the infatuated sailor who falls for the winsome Johanna, well played by Katy Jarvis. Christopher Vazquez was loquacious and funny as Pirelli, and Caleb Kneip was properly slimy as the corrupt Judge Turpin. Of the major characters, only Herrera as the Beadle was unconvincing; he was the only one who did not adopt a Cockney or British accent and his performance was hardly as menacing as his character should have been. The quartet rendition of “Johanna” in Act II, featuring Stover, Metzger, Jarvis, and Roberts, was one of the best musical moments in the show. The other was the beautifully understated and tender “Not While I’m Around,” sung by Martinez as Mrs. Lovett and Graham as Tobias.
The look for the production was different from others we’ve seen. The stage was divided into three sections: Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, Todd’s tonsorial parlor, and two flights of stairs, which served as Johanna’s upstairs bedroom. Most productions include some sort of rigged barber chair, equipped with a slide, that allows Todd to swiftly dispose of his victims, who are deposited in an unseen room below the upstairs parlor. For this production, there was no room to construct the two-story set, so a regular captain’s chair was used, and instead of using a slide, victims were simply dragged to the wings.
Even though the sets were simplified, it would have not been too difficult to get prop meat pies for the pie shop scenes; as a result, characters had to pantomime eating them, which could have been made more realistic. The body count during the second “Johanna,” was reduced to one victim, where normally there are several that get done in by Todd during the song. In the final scene, where Todd dances Mrs. Lovett into a waiting furnace, there was none, so Todd merely strangled her instead.
Despite these altered scenes, the show worked surprisingly well. Brent Wilson’s 10-piece orchestra was superb, while Abra Flores’ costume design was properly appropriate to the period. Rob Bridges provided the atmospheric lighting.
As for Andrew Metzger, he’s still only a senior at CSU Channel Islands so there is still a lot of room for growth for this talented, versatile performer. We predict that the sky is the limit for him. He continues to be one of the most promising, astute, and brilliant actors currently on the Ventura County theater scene. We look forward to more of his work in the future.