Revenge is sweet as pie in Olney Theatre Center’s Sweeney Todd.
Director Jason Loewith serves up a grisly production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Tony Award-winning musical that captures the essence of Sondheim’s genius creation with a stellar cast and creative team.
Indeed, this production is a “team” affair. From the flawless ensemble that moves and sings in perfect harmony, to the set and lighting that send cold shivers down your spine (more on that below) and a cast list that reads like a “who’s who” of DC theater: the elements of this show combine like the ingredients in a delicious pie – if pies were filled with unsettling gore and carnage.
Sondheim’s sophisticated score and razor-sharp lyrics (book by Hugh Wheeler) are the heart of Sweeney Todd and Music Director Christopher Youstra assembled a superb cadre of musicians and performers who captured the music’s nuance and complexity from the first jarring chord to the last tender ballad.
Sweeney Todd is rooted in two of theater’s most iconic characters: Sweeney, the wronged barber who returns to London seeking vengeance for an injustice and Mrs. Lovett the eccentric pie shop owner whose scruples are as fleeting as the customers at her failing pie shop.
Broadway veteran David Benoit’s Sweeney Todd is brooding and encompassing; his baritone voice resonating throughout the theater. Benoit’s duet with Thomas Adrian Simpson (Judge Turpin), “Pretty Women,” was the highlight of the show for me.
The renowned E. Faye Butler brought her own brand of comedy to the role of Mrs. Lovett, stirring up a Lovett that is a little less daft quirk and a lot more conniving spunk. Butler and Benoit have great chemistry in “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea,” and Butler’s final scene with Toby – the unfortunate simpleton who falls under her spell – is simultaneously tender and creepy.
Michael J. Mainwaring’s Toby is just one of the numerous supporting cast members who make this production shine. Mainwaring’s rendition of “Not While I’m Around” was spot-on. Other noteworthy performances by supporting cast members include:
- Rachel Zampelli as Beadle Bamford: It was an unconventional choice was to cast a female as Beadle Bamford. However, I quite enjoyed watching Ms. Zampelli channel her inner Edwin Drood, turning the Beadle into quite the English dandy.
- Patricia Hurley as the Beggar Woman: Fresh off her performance as Mary Poppins in Olney’s most recent mainstage show, Hurley had another chance to let her vocal chops shine.
- Thomas Adrian Simpson as Judge Turpin: His lecherous devouring of Johanna with his eyes in “Johanna” made my skin crawl. The timbre of his voice as he repeatedly referred to her “thin muslin gowns?” So creepy!
- Frank Viveros as Pirelli: His humorous portrayal of the charlatan Italian salesman injected just the right dose of comedy, and his dramatic tenor voice in “The Contest” was a delight.
The Johanna/Anthony love story was also anchored in two stellar performances. Gracie Jones as Johanna is a flawless soprano and gave the most emotionally raw and transformative performance in the cast as her dismal life goes from bad to worse. Jobari Parker-Namdar played Anthony with the fresh enthusiasm of a young sailor in love. His “Johanna” (one of theater’s most beautiful ballads), was a joy and Anthony and Johanna’s complex duet “Kiss Me” was nimbly executed by both performers.
Colin K. Bills’ lighting deserves its own standing ovation. Inspired by chiaroscuro paintings, which keep much of the canvas in shadows while highlighting an upturned face here, a knife-wielding arm there, the lighting created a delicious sense of foreboding and placed us squarely in grimy, gruesome Londontown.
Milagros Ponce De León’s set retains the cultural underpinnings of Hal Prince’s original 1979 production. Here we find the steel, the bricks, the burning ovens of Industrial London where those on top can make mincemeat of the masses and drive a person insane.
Seth Gilbert’s costumes added another layer of Victorian drama to the stage, and Tommy Rapley’s choreography was perfectly tuned in to the mood of a show that entertains by enthralling audiences with depravity.
I’m a big fan of the Olney Theatre Center, whose work has been superb. Add Sweeney Todd to the long list of recent Olney Theare Center hits! It’s a killer of a production! Sondheim would be proud.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Meet the Cast of Olney Theatre Center’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part One: David Benoit (Sweeney Todd).