“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” These lyrics, sung throughout Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s imperishable 1979 musical, are heeded assiduously by director Kent Nicholson in a solid South Coast Repertory revival that puts the twistedly macabre story before all else.
That might seem like standard operating procedure, but there have been times when the musical’s performers and its director have commanded more of the spotlight. Nicholson turns weakness into strength: His production of “Sweeney Todd” doesn’t have any star performances or staging pyrotechnics.
Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury (both of whom won Tony Awards for originating the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett on Broadway) are not on hand. Neither are Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone (both of whom graced John Doyle’s inventively minimalist Tony-winning revival that had the cast double as the orchestra).
Nicholson’s production is admirably straightforward. If his actors don’t always seem stylistically in sync, if the characterizations sometimes seem overemphatic and at other times underdone, if occasionally a supporting player turns a song into a spot on “The Voice,” the musical storytelling is nonetheless clean, crisp and compulsive.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli creates an environment that is purely theatrical. The margins of the stage have been transformed into an old-fashioned proscenium house, with deep red balconies evoking both theaters of a bygone era and, appropriately enough for a musical about a homicidal barber, blood. Backdrop panels sketch in the Victorian London background with frolicsome dash. But the buoyancy is rank with menace: The basement of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop belches a hellish smoke.
David St. Louis plays Sweeney Todd as a man with one thing on his mind: vengeance. His anger, thunderous when he arrives back in London after being wrongly convicted and sent to an Australian prison, grows more gnarled as his obsession consumes him.
Anthony (Devin Archer), a generous young sailor who plucked Sweeney from the sea, looks excitedly upon the city for adventure in “No Place Like London.” Sweeney, by contrast, holds no such affection for his old hometown: “There’s a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world / Inhabit it.”
A dilapidated beggar woman (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) pleads for alms, then propositions the men, in a bait-and-switch that captures the wanton depravity of London and crystallizes the musical’s mingling of gritty drama and creepy comedy. But the female character who most fully embodies the perversity of the city is of course Mrs. Lovett (Jamey Hood).
The proprietor of a pie shop who chirps unashamedly about selling “the worst pies in London,” Mrs. Lovett recognizes Sweeney as her former tenant, Benjamin Barker. This was Sweeney’s identity before he fell victim to Judge Turpin (Robert Mammana), who lusted after his wife and assumed custody of his daughter, Johanna (Juliana Hansen), once the barber was dispatched on a convict ship.
In returning Sweeney’s razor case that she has safely kept for him (a sign of her erotic interest), Mrs. Lovett provides him with the means for his revenge as well as a method of obtaining meat for her pies. The guilty can be punished, the pastry shells can be filled and, with any lucky, the lonely cannibalistic baker might actually become a contented woman again.
With her swerving limbs and insouciant mugging, Hood’s lively performance spills over with musical comedy brio. Her approach to the character contrasts with St. Louis’ more dramatic Sweeney, whose rumbling fury turns inward as the show progresses. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett aren’t meant to be a match made in heaven. (Their union was sealed in a more fiery place.) But there’s something mismatched even in their handling of songs — Hood performs numbers while St. Louis seems to be brooding aloud.
Some of this is intrinsic to their characters, but the styles haven’t yet harmonized. Fortunately, the acting discrepancy didn’t prevent me from falling under the musical’s spell. Credit this not only to the general capability of the performers but also to the trustworthy stage world that Nicholson has devised for Sondheim and Wheeler’s brilliant show.
The singing for the most part never loses sight of the drama. Archer has a sumptuously romantic voice, so his soaring rendition of “Johanna” fits in nicely with the love-at-first-sight moment. Hansen’s Johanna, the young woman who’s under jealous Judge Turpin’s lock and key, is appropriately bird-like in her melodious twittering.
Tobias (Conlan Ledwith), minion of rival barber and arrant con man Adolfo Pirelli (a bouncy Roland Rusinek), gets a little carried away at the end of “Not While I’m Around,” his anthem of protection to Mrs. Lovett, who has taken the half-witted lad under her raven’s wing. But it’s such a lovely tune and he sings it so ardently that the vocal frippery is more or less harmless.
Mammana’s Judge Turpin cuts a suavely malign figure. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who plays the judge’s henchman, Beadle Bamford, is a bit stiff as a singer but he too makes a vivid villain.
The stagecraft by which customers who just a minute ago were getting the closest of shaves are removed isn’t the fleetest. After a client’s throat is cut, the lights flicker, smoke pours in and the dead are thrust from the barber’s chair and forced to make an exit zombie-style.
But the Grand Guignol spirit survives in this entertaining South Coast Rep production. “Sweeney Todd,” a glorious musical thriller set in a society that has become morally unhinged, lives again in a production that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 16
Info: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org