The barber: Play better than story

When I was a little boy growing up on 96th Street in New York, we had a live-in au pair helping to care for us while my mom was out working. One night, we asked for a story and she told us the tale of a London barber who slit his customers’ throats, lowered them into the ground using a contraption on the barber chair, and then made them into mincemeat pies.

The barber, she said, was found out because they found fingernails in the pies.

Naturally, I couldn’t sleep that night or for many nights thereafter. And every time I went to the barber, I inevitably waited for that moment when the throat-slitting and the being dumped into the ground would commence.

Many, many years later, when I heard about the Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd,” I was in no mood to recreate the living hell that our well-meaning storyteller has visited upon me. However, we did go to see “Sweeney Todd,” mainly because Mary Ann Quinson, the legendary, beautiful and generous founding board president of Barrington Stage Co., was being honored for all her work with Julianne Boyd to make possible what is now a major centerpiece of a rejuvenated Pittsfield.

However, it was with some trepidation that I returned to the scene of my earlier nightmares. I should not have been concerned, nor should anyone else. Barrington Stage’s “Sweeney Todd” is as good as anything I have ever seen on Broadway. As a musical, it really works. Hats off to everyone involved.

The actors are superb. Each and every one of them was so good that you were transported to another place. Boyd’s usual humanistic and sensitive interpretation of the play makes it a very comfortable event. One is told the story behind the story — why Sweeney Todd actually became mentally ill enough to kill those who had done him no wrong as well as those against whom he had real grudges. It was done so well that you found yourself laughing instead of clutching the sides of your seat.

As befits a man of my age, I have always been a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan. I love melodic music and shy away from the discordant. That’s just a matter of personal preference so Sondheim has never been my top cup of tea. Nevertheless, his music fits this show and is quite wonderful. Not once did my eyelids begin to descend. The star of the show, Jeff McCarthy, is great. His voice is strong, his acting is believable and he can turn on a dime between funny and deadly serious and disturbed.

Harriet Harris is phenomenal as the wonderful piemaker with romantic designs on Sweeney and the rest of the case is equally superb.

It is obvious that no expense has been spared to put on this production. The set, the staging and the orchestra are all first rate. This is Pittsfield at its best and a good reason why everyone should be helping all our not-for-profit regional theaters.

At a post-show celebration, Mayor Jim Ruberto made it clear that while the Colonial Theatre renovation was supposed to turn North Street around, the move by Barrington Stage from South County to Pittsfield was a major catalyst in revitalizing Pittsfield. I urge you to run and get tickets while you still can. You’ll love it.

On another subject, the crucial Elizabeth Freeman Center is putting on a fundraiser at the Chartocks’ house in Great Barrington between 5 and 7 p.m. on Friday, July 16.

The people of the Elizabeth Freeman Center are out on the front lines, helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and their families. They provide counseling and support for those who are going through hell and if there was ever a worthy enterprise, this is it.

I hope that we can get the kind of support that is needed. For more information, call Ann Miller, (413) 644-3103, or, if you like, you can call Roselle, (413) 528-4199. The last time we hosted this event, the special guest was Arlo Guthrie. This time, your eyes may pop out when you see who will be there. Dress as you like.

There won’t be any clothes police on hand to tell you what to wear. What’s important is providing for those who most need it, often at the toughest time in their lives.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 7/3/10

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