A sharp, engaging ‘Sweeney Todd’
PITTSFIELD — Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company, is presenting “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’’ in all its gruesome beauty. Her production, at once stark and rich, is a poisonously delectable treat for all devotees of Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, and their 1979 musical amorality tale.
Not everyone is a devotee, of course: The demon barber, with his vengeful mission of converting his fellow citizens into meat pies, must stand as the strangest musical lead in the canon. (Well, not counting Shrek.) And for all the dissonant beauties of the score and the devilish wit of the lyrics, the musical itself is so relentlessly coldhearted (when it’s not just as coldly sentimental, as in the character of Sweeney’s ill-starred daughter, Johanna) that it remains easier to admire than to love.
All that said, Boyd’s is a “Sweeney Todd’’ to savor. With a stripped-down but evocative set by Wilson Chin, sharp and moody lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, and costumes by Jen Moeller in a grimy palette amusingly spiked with venomous hits of chartreuse, this production has a distinctive look. It’s part Grand Guignol, part modern minimalism, and wholly coherent and smart.
But that wouldn’t mean much without strong performances, and those this “Sweeney’’ has in abundance. From his first entrance, Jeff McCarthy commands the stage as Sweeney Todd (though that entrance oddly has him just emerge from behind the crowd rather than, as the musical’s book specifies, rising from an unmarked grave). His singing is often quieter than you’d expect but has an eerie, haunting power, and as an actor he inhabits the role with a frightening and total presence. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Opposite McCarthy, Harriet Harris plays Mrs. Lovett, the lovesick proprietress of the pie shop, with a slightly offbeat goofiness that’s purely funny at first but takes on an increasingly demented, scary air. This feels like just the right tone for the difficulties of “Sweeney Todd’’: We’re meant to be amused but also repelled, and Harris’s oh-she’s-silly-no-she’s-crazy approach hits both notes at once.
As the corrupt judge who sent the barber off to Australia so he could seduce his wife, Ed Dixon is as vile a villain as you could wish for. This is hardly a subtle role — Judge Turpin moves on from raping Sweeney’s wife to plotting to marry the couple’s innocent young daughter, now his ward — so Dixon’s jowl-shaking, lip-smacking contortions feel justified. Timothy Shew makes an appropriately craven and cruel henchman as Beadle Bamford.
The young lovers — Johanna and the sailor, Anthony Hope (speaking of unsubtle touches), who plans to rescue her from the judge — feel, as usual, like a forced note of brightness in the otherwise unrelieved darkness of Sweeney’s world. But Sarah Stevens has the requisite pretty voice and delicate manner for the angelic Johanna, and Shonn Wiley looks every inch a handsome young lad. He seemed a little uncertain in the role on press night, with a few muffed lines and shaky notes, but his polished and unobtrusive work as the show’s choreographer more than makes up for that.
Thanks to sound designer Ed Chapman and a terrific nine-piece orchestra directed by Darren Cohen, this “Sweeney Todd’’ also sounds wonderful. The depth and complexity of Sondheim’s score come across with admirable clarity, and the orchestra manages never to overwhelm the singers while still creating a vivid musical presence of its own.
“Sweeney Todd’’ might seem an unusual choice for a summer production. It’s certainly a brave one. But when the production is as uniformly excellent, engaging, and intelligent as this, there’s really only one word for it: irresistible.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.