“Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Arts West

Let it not be said that Arts West doesn’t take big risks. “Sweeney Todd…” Stephen Sondheim’s blockbuster musical cum opera is a major undertaking (no pun intended). It requires a large cast of outstanding singers supported by gifted musicians, an inventive set, and, above all, superb direction. It’s expensive to produce, and it doesn’t guarantee a packed House. So Arts West took a chance. And we all can be so glad they did! Under the direction of Matthew Wright and Eric Ankrim this production is terrific.

Christopher Mumaw’s spooky, grey set combined with Tristan Roberson’s eerie lighting design, take us directly to 19th C. London where Sweeney Todd, the psychopathic barber, cuts throats as well as hair. He’s been badly used in his past, and revenge is what he’s after. Sadly, he can’t retaliate against the corrupt judge who destroyed his family and ruined his life, so everyone and anyone else is fair game for his deadly knives.

Ben Gonio creates a wonderfully troubled Sweeney. He’s disturbed, moody, determined. There’s no sweetness in this revenge. His is a pathological quest. Assisting him in his foul business is Mrs. Lovitt, his landlady and vendor of meat pies. You can probably guess what meat is used for those pies. Corinna Lapid Munter gives her just the right heartlessness combined with a certain joviality and business-like demeanor.

The entire cast is up to the demands of this, the darkest musical ever written. First produced in 1979, it has been staged in major cities around the world and has been called “one of the signal achievements in musical theatre of the last fifty years.”

Matt Hohensee and Steven Tran get credit for the music in this production. Eerie, mood inducing, it sets just the right tone.

Finally we all have to give attention to the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim who has won more awards than any other contemporary American composer and lyricist. This is by far the darkest of his works. Dark yet mesmerizing. Kudos to Arts West for bringing it in such fine fashion to the Arts West stage.

Extended through July 7, Arts West Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, 206 938-0339 or www. artswest.org.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” at ACT

What’s a fella to do? His darling wife’s pregnant. His act as an Elvis impersonator is going nowhere. They need money. Would you believe he finds his fame and fortune as a drag queen? It may sound like an absurd concept, but it makes a dynamite show, and ACT and Director David Bennett seem to have found just the right actors and costumes to make it zing.

Adam Standley as Casey, the failed Elvis interpreter, reluctantly puts on the bra and girdle, slips into the dress and wig and finds a new life for himself when all seems lost. Of course he can’t do it alone. His guide and mentor in this metamorphosis is Miss Tracy Mills played with panache by Seattle’s well-loved Timothy McCuen Piggee. Miss. Tracy is just about as fey as they come. She knows exactly how to move her hips, put on her makeup, and cross her legs. She can lip sync with perfection, and is one sharp individual who knows how to create a success.

Standley, reluctant though he may be to make the transition, turns himself into quite a presentable babe. He sashays with grace in the highest of high heels and wiggles his hips with the best of them. Meanwhile, he’s afraid to tell his pregnant wife exactly what role he plays at the nightspot where his Elvis didn’t quite make it. By the end of the play, she enthusiastically embraces his success.

These actors are indeed awfully good, and their costumes by Pete Rush and wigs by Dennis Milam Bensie are unforgettable. Sixteen wigs in all are used in the show, most of them bouffant masterpieces and in a variety of colors. And costumes! Think sequins and satin; think ruffles, think over the top. And for those of us who aren’t familiar with the underthings that help make the sexual transitions appear real, this show is a learning experience.

Playwright Matthew Lopez has created a delightful confection. ACT has given it a topnotch production.

Through July 2 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.)

“Busman’s Honeymoon” at Taproot Theatre

Trust Dorothy Sayers to come up with a delectable little murder mystery filled with humor as well as suspense. This one, written in 1937, concerns, of course, Lord Peter Wimsey the indefatigable gentleman detective.

In this confection, Lord Peter is on his honeymoon. He’s just arrived at the English country house he’s bought for his new bride. Mark Lund’s set works nicely to evoke the time period and the place. One can almost smell the slight mustiness that’s a hallmark of many such houses.

Naturally, the thought of solving a mystery is the last thing on Wimsy’s mind! But somehow, mysteries just seem to present themselves to him, and what’s a fellow to do but solve them? So he and his bride, she who writes mysteries, get to it. After conversations with the various assembled retainers and townspeople they learn exactly why the landlord is dead at the bottom of the cellar steps with his head cracked open.

Director Scott Nolte has assembled a fine cast, led by Terry Edward Moore as the wry but so wise Lord Peter. Alyson Scadron Branner is the not so simpering bride. She and Moore play off each other with wit and an obvious delight. Here’s a couple enchanted by their opportunity to start their marriage in collegial sleuthing. And lucky are they to be supported by a first class team of some of Seattle’s finest actors.

The play, itself is a bit dated, but it includes some lovely word play as well as a few surprises. Of course there’s a backstory, the details of which gradually leak out as the stage fills up with the large cast of characters. And you’ll not be surprised to learn that the Wimseys do identify the murderer.

The ending is interesting in that it reveals Lord Wimsey’s distaste for capital punishment, his discomfort at having a role in condemning a man to death. That’s an issue we are still wrestling with here in the United States. The last execution for murder in England occurred in 1964 just before such acts were outlawed.

Through June 24 Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9705 or taproottheatre.org.)

“Grand Concourse” at Seattle Public Theater

Faith Bennett Russell as Shelly. Photo by John Cornicello

Just as the Grand Concourse in The Bronx began as a magnificent boulevard and is now a distressed ribbon of concrete in a down and out part of that borough, the characters in “Grand Concourse” have fallen into bad times. Directed here by Annie Lareau, the play raises some interesting questions, most importantly, what are the limits of what we can do for others?

Shelley (well played by Faith Bennett Russell) is a nun who wears street clothes and lives a secular life. She runs the soup kitchen (designed by Jenny Littlefield) in which this entire play is situated and has begun to question the worth of her commitment. These doubts are something she talks to God about, limiting her discussions to timed intervals marked off by a microwave acting as an alarm clock.

Helping her is Oscar, the jivey, laid back, can-do Dominican young man who does the heavy lifting and chases away the neighborhood hoodlums. The captivating Tyler Trerise gives him loads of charm. He’s a good natured “Johnny on the spot” who lights up the set whenever he saunters in. Yet Oscar, too, is not without his moral quandary. For him it’s a question of love vs. lust.

Frog, the alcoholic, schizophrenic street person benefitting from the kitchen, helps out whenever he can. His is a complex character. He’s an educated man who hasn’t always been down-and-out, one who appears to be able to control his life but sadly can’t. Corey McDaniel plays him with subtlety.

These three have their little world in reasonable order when Emma (Hannah Ruwe) walks in. She’s sweet; she’s needy; she wants to help; she’s evidently undergoing cancer treatments. They bring her into their tight little circle. Sadly, in many ways she turns out to be the snake in the garden, such as it is. Hers is a role with many dimensions and she does it all well.

The acting here is noteworthy, and the set is effective. Yet the production seemed a bit static, in need of an emotional boost. That said, you will leave pondering the question of what are the limits of compassion?

Through June 11 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 West Green Lake Dr. N, Seattle, (206) 524-1300 or seattlepublictheatre.org.

Two Exhibitions at the Frye Museum

Some art is an experience that speaks to one’s aesthetic sense. Other art calls more to one’s intellect. It speaks more to the mind than the eye. The Frye offers both types currently. “AMIE SIEGEL Interiors” is for the mind, a cerebral excursion (Through Sept. 3). “Between the Frames” offers far more aesthetic appeal (Through July 23). Together, the shows offer an interesting juxtaposition, but also an appropriate commentary on the Museum’s development since its founding in 1952.

Siegel’s work investigates what the curator calls “ideas about objects and their perceived cultural value, and the power systems that evolve from connoisseurship, collecting, and image making.” Using film, slides and video she explores our relationship to things. Through examination of the things in London’s Freud Museum she points out parallels between the scrupulous care given to Freud’s collection of archeological objects and his conscientious process of analysis—removing the dross to reveal the essence.

Another work consists of two black and white 16mm films simultaneously projecting a sequence of shots of Le Corbusier’s white Villa Savoye outside of Paris and a black copy of the building in Canberra, Australia. Each film is printed in a manner that reverses dark and light. Here too the artist is mapping out “the interior mechanisms of the mind as well as the museum . . . that define aesthetic and social worth.” It’s food for the intellect more than delight for the eye.

The other current exhibition, “Between the Frames,” consists of art that speaks directly to one’s aesthetic sense. It features works acquired under each of the directors of the Museum since its founding in 1952.

The Frye’s had a vision. They wanted to create a free, public art museum for the people of Seattle. We are still enjoying the benefits of their generosity. This exhibit offers a retrospective of the growth and change in the collection since the Museum was established. It highlights the development of the Museum’s collection from the original 200 representational works donated by Charles and Emma Frye to today’s much expanded collection that includes cutting-edge contemporary works.

Wheat Gatherer by Winslow Homer, acquired in 1958.

“Between the Frames” showcases examples of the acquisitions made by each of the six directors. Through their oversight and vision, the museum has, decade by decade, reframed the past, informed the present, and speculated on the future.

The first Director, Walser Sly Greathouse, maintained the focus on representational art,  as did his wife Ida Kay who succeeded him after his death.  Interest in local artists and those from the Pacific Northwest, including women artists were hallmarks of her tenure.

Girl in Striped Robe by Philip Pearlstein

The next director, Richard V. West oversaw the major remodel in 1997 that resulted in the building we have today. Under his direction the collection continued to grow with representational works like Philip Pearlstein’s “Girl in Striped Robe.”

In 2003, Elsa “Midge” Bowman assumed leadership and soon brought in Robin Held as head curator. Together they reinvented the exhibition program. Video and performance art were presented. The whole question of how to define representational art was examined and the museum’s mission statement was revised to more adequately reflect both the intentions of the Fryes and the vision of its board.

When Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker was appointed director in 2009 new collaborations and further expansion of the exhibitions program were initiated with a continued focus on contemporary art. Her tenure set the stage for current director Joseph Rosa who will build the collection, just as the Fryes built their collection—on the contemporary art of the time. “Between the Frames” offers a splendid summary of how the Frye has broadened its collections since its inception.

Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, fryemuseum.org, 206 622-9250, free admission and parking.