Sarna Lapine’s lush, lusty staging of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (★★★☆☆) at Signature greets its audience with the stark image of a single lamppost, clouded in mist. Evoking the dark alleyways of Victorian London with little more than Jesse Belsky’s vividly atmospheric lighting on Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ sparse, shifting set, the production establishes itself with the chilling confidence of a killer.
Surely, Stephen Sondheim’s score inspires confidence, yet the audacity of that lone gaslamp is rarely matched by what follows from the moment music director Jon Kalbfleisch brings in the fine 15-piece orchestra, tucked in a loft above the stage, and plays us into an only mildly impactful “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Rather, this Sweeney follows its Sweeney, skilled and efficient, committed to hitting its marks, but lacking some element of boldness.
Embodied with baleful gravity and a beautifully round sound by Nathaniel Stampley, Sweeney takes to murder, seemingly not out of bloodlust, but because it offers the path of least resistance to the vengeance he seeks. Neither does his accomplice, that slatternly meat pie-slinger Mrs. Lovett, rivetingly alive in Bryonha Marie’s delightful performance, seem thirsty for bloodletting. She just doesn’t mind it as a means to a few ends that suit her, like, for one, holding onto Sweeney.
They’re still a couple of lunatics. Sweeney slices customers’ throats in his barber shop, and Lovett dices their bodies into meat pies inside her bake shop. Their murder spree seems to get no rise out of Stampley’s Sweeney, prone to an icy, penetrating stare, but the partnership (and their success) clearly awakens something in Lovett.
She’s pretty awake when we meet her, though, with Marie offering a struggling shopkeeper so vivacious that we might wonder if she couldn’t easily find better things to do than toil away in the depths with the Demon Barber. But then, Marie also shows us a Lovett with a palpable desire for her man, and a wicked sense of humor in well-sung numbers like “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest.”
A Sweeney and Lovett who look like they’re actually getting it on offstage offers an intriguing tonal contrast to the show’s sweetly innocent courtship between young sailor Anthony Hope (Paul Scanlan) and Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (Katie Mariko Murray). And that pairing counters the cringe-inducing relationship between Johanna and her guardian, Sweeney’s nemesis Judge Turpin (John Leslie Wolfe), an old man pathetically tempted with desire for his illicitly adopted ward.
Lapine and her ensemble draw from this medley of cross pursuits and purposes potent notes of despair and corruption, as well as hope and romance. That’s despite the fairly unaffecting love story of Anthony and Johanna, though both parts are sung well, particularly Murray in Johanna’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” ode to being set free from her cage. Scanlan labors to project Anthony’s buoyant yearning for his lovely lass, but the character flounders.
In their featured turns, respectively, as Sweeney’s eager apprentice Tobias Ragg and the ubiquitous Beggar Woman, Harrison Smith and Rayanne Gonzales sell the score and the characters, while Christopher Michael Richardson’s boldly fey and ruthless Beadle brings back some of that audacity that might’ve been lacking.
There’s boldness, too, in Lapine’s staging of Sweeney’s killings, realized through various mechanisms of props, costumes, makeup, and lighting, though the timing and execution can miss from time to time (or did the night I saw it). The Demon Barber, of course, never misses — a throat, that is — his murderous blade as sure as the London fog, or a perfectly measured verse by Sondheim.
Sweeney Todd runs through July 9 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Va. There is a Pride Night performance on June 23. Tickets are $40 to $119. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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