The Little Theatre of Alexandria presents Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a macabre musical about a wronged man and his consuming fixation on revenge. Directed by Andrew JM Regiec and with Musical Direction by Elisa Rosman this production is not your average ‘happy’ musical.
If one element from this production stays with you, it would be the set, designed by Andrew JM Regiec and Dan Remmers. Deceivingly dreary at first and consisting mainly of slate-gray painted panels, it is revealed that both ends of the stage have a revolving piece, so that the stage is segmented into three different sets that are all onstage at once throughout the production. These revolving sets hide multitudes; from a pink-painted pie shop and barber’s room, to a rose-covered balcony, a dainty bedroom, blood-splattered bakeshop, and more. The fact that so much can be cleverly fit onto one stage is an impressive feat.
Lighting Designer Ken and Patti Crowley project moving images onto the panels, such as flickering flames during a song called “City On Fire,” to rolling waves for the number, “By the Sea,” which lend an added depth to the songs. Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley awaken 19th century London with their Costume Design, clothing the poor villagers in ragged dresses and vests, and the wealthy in crisp, colorful prints and powdered wigs.
Harv Lester is positively evil (in a good way) as Sweeney Todd, a man returning home to London fifteen years after being falsely sentenced and arrested by the sinister Judge Turpin (Chris Gillespie), who then greedily took Todd’s beautiful wife for his own. Brooding and filled with rage, Lester holds a transfixing glower as he sweeps the filthy, grimy London streets to find that his old home is now a pie shop run by a peculiar woman named Mrs. Lovett (Jennifer Lyons Pagnard). Pagnard is hilarious as she sings, “Worst Pies in London,” while feeding a grimacing Todd a sloppy “meat” pie. Todd takes the room above the pie shop, and discovers that his fury can be channeled with murder through the use of his razors (to whom he sings a heartfelt song entitled, “My Friends)…and, as a nice bonus, Mrs. Lovett receives fresh supplies of meat for her pies. Gaining back his reputation as an accomplished barber, Sweeney challenges his rival, Adolfo Pirelli (Zachary Frank) to a public shaving contest in the lively number, “The Contest.”
A duet between the two entitled “A Little Priest” is one of the more playful and enjoyable numbers, where they liken the characteristics of their customers to the pies that they will become (“a lawyer is nice, if it’s for a price”). The ensemble shines with an enthusiastic rendition of “God That’s Good” after sampling Mrs. Lovett’s new and “improved” meat pies. Ben Ribler (Tobias Ragg) sings a heartwarming ‘Not While I’m Around.”
Meanwhile, a sub-plot involving Todd’s daughter Johanna (Roxanne Scher), now a young woman raised by Judge Turpin, unravels on the other side of the stage. A young sailor named Anthony Hope (Will Hawkins, who sings the beautiful “Johanna”) falls in love with Johanna after hearing her sing from her window, where the Judge keeps her to her room as if a prisoner with the intention of marriage. Determined to steal her away from the oppressive Judge, Anthony enlists the help of an eager Todd. Plot twists reveal falsehoods, obstacles, and haunting surprises as each character strives to obtain their hearts desires, through whichever means necessary.
LTA’s production of Sweeney Toodd is a powerful as well as an entertaining one, but it is not without its faults. Often when a musical is accompanied by a live orchestra, as this one is, the deafening instruments drown the actors out. This is not the case in this production; however, the actors are occasionally drowned out by…each other. Many of the songs require the actors to sing simultaneously, overlapping each other, with the result being that their lyrics are garbled and difficult to understand, particularly with Johanna and Anthony, whose synchronizing could use some polishing. Also, while Lester and Pagnard are mesmerizing in their lead roles, their supporting cast is plagued with tepid performances and under-whelming vocals.
Sweeney Todd is a welcome rarity – a dark musical with complex characters and morbid situations. While some aspects of the show could use some fine-tuning, it was still highly enjoyable and worthy of the ticket price. Have a visit with Sweeney…but he wary if he offers you a shave!
Running time is 180 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Sweeney Todd plays through August 18th, 2012 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria – 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. Purchase tickets by calling (703) 683-0496, or order them online.