‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at Act Two @ Levine

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Alex Stone and Rachel Lawhead showed so much chemistry that you would have thought that their roles were written for them. in Act Two @ Levine’s stunning production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the pie-filled production of the 1979 Tony-winning thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Last Friday night’s cast starred Stone as Sweeney Todd, the barber bent on revenge against a judge who jailed him, and Lawhead as Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a London meat pie shop.

Rachel Lawhead (Mrs. Lovett) and Alex Stone (Sweeney Todd). Photo by CYM Media & Entertainment.
Rachel Lawhead (Mrs. Lovett) and Alex Stone (Sweeney Todd). Photo by CYM Media & Entertainment.

Each of these McLean High School seniors is a talented actor in his own right.  Stone is just preternaturally strong and Lawhead has an uncanny ability to humanize offbeat characters. (Full disclosure: I have seen these two perform since they were in seventh grade because my son goes to school with them.)

Directed by Kevin Kuchar, there were many creative ‘touches’ all through the production, including Lawhead repeatedly poking at Stone’s shoulder with both hands like she was kneading dough. Under the direction of darkly creative Kuchar,  it works charmingly, especially when she is trying to break through Todd’s brooding silence.

Stone keeps his barely masked, pent-up rage in check throughout the first act and reminded me of the simmering Bates from Downton Abbey. But Stone, a gifted singer, finally allows it to surge forth with booming vocals in a show-stopping “Epiphany” just before intermission. It was frightening and spine-tingling.

In Act II, Lawhead, who has superior elocution, as seen in Act 1 in her opening number “The Worst Pies in London’ sings “By The Sea,” continuing to coquettishly pummel Stone with her knuckles as she describes a retirement scenario to escape their daily grind of baking and barbering.

But Todd is determined to destroy Judge Turpin (a scary Ben Sarraille, a recent graduate of Sidwell Friends School). Todd is seething at the judge because he sent him to prison on trumped up charges and raped his wife while he was away. Now, having taken Todd’s daughter as a ward of the state, the judge has designs on her as well, forcing Todd into a murderous rage that he takes out on unsuspecting clients with his barber’s razor.

Todd and Lovett hatch a plan to use his victims to stuff her meat pies, and the most delightful song of the evening is their duet “A Little Priest,” in which they use puns to describe the attributes of various pies based on the vocation of their main ingredient. Stone and Lawhead are having the time of their lives and it really shows in their singing and dancing.

Simon Diesenhaus (Toby)  singing "Not While I'm Around." Photo by CYM Media & Entertainment.
Simon Diesenhaus (Toby) singing “Not While I’m Around.” Photo by CYM Media & Entertainment.

Another standout on opening night was Simon Diesenhaus as Tobias Ragg, who works for Mrs. Lovett, but is leery of Todd. He tries to protect Mrs. Lovett in the charming “Not While I’m Around,” but I found myself wanting to protect him as he ran up and down the stairs during a song that could have even more effective if he had just remained with Mrs. Lovett to sing this powerful song. It would have made for an even more intimate duet between their characters. The Georgetown Day School eighth grader also did an athletic rendition of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” in the first act, running around the audience and even standing on the arms of an empty seat. Diescenhaus’ heartbreaking performance as Tobias was one of the highlights of the evening.

Also turning in a great performance was Migi Fabara as the Beggar Woman. She effectively hit the discordant notes that raise what some consider to be Sondheim’s best musical to a quasi-operatic level. She was particularly good in “City on Fire.”

The audience clapped heartily for the love song “Kiss Me” between Todd’s daughter Johanna Barker (Gillian Jackson Han, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School), and her sailor suitor Anthony Hope (Teddy Sullivan, a senior at the Bullis School).

Kuchar’s choice to have a female play the role of the other barber, Adolfo Pirelli (Julia Bratburd, a sophomore at Urbana High School) was an interesting departure, and her soaring soprano provided a welcome counterpoint.

Alex Stone (Sweeney Todd) singing 'Epiphany.' Photo by CYM Media & Entertainment.
Alex Stone (Sweeney Todd) singing ‘Epiphany.’ Photo by CYM Media & Entertainment.

Andrew Stover, a junior at School Without Walls, was appropriately obsequious to the Judge as his sidekick Beadle Bamford. Claire DeCroix, a sophomore at Yorktown High School played Fogg, the doctor at the insane asylum, where they go to collect hair for wigs. The ensemble sang beautifully as they depicted the inmates’ nervous ticks and atavistic scratching in the Victorian-era asylum and several other scenes involving the whole company.

Kuchar’s gritty set made of black screens and large slat- covered ovens was offset by great lighting by Scott Sellman, whose colorful projections provided a backdrop in a rainy scene featuring Martha Graham-style choreography by Rachael Schindler, a senior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School who had the umbrella toting ensemble cross and re-cross the stage with a high-stepping steampunk sensibility. Kuchar’s Victorian era costumes featured several striped-lace underskirts, while the skirt worn by Pirelli was cut away to reveal leather shorts.

The actors mentioned in this article appeared in the Friday night and Saturday matinee. They doubled with actors who performed Saturday night and Sunday matinee. The entire cast worked closely with Musical Director Josephine Riggs, who conducted a talented pit orchestra of five musicians, and vocal coach Duane A. Moody.

Congratulations to everyone involved in this excellent production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

Running Time: 2 ½ hours with a 15-minute intermission.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Act Two @ Levine played from November 14-16, 2014 at Georgetown Prep’s Figge Theatre – 10900 Rockville Pike, in North Bethesda, Maryland. For more information about Act 2 @ Levine, visit their website.