Review | This version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ commits a cardinal sin: It’s bloodless


The song is called “Epiphany” for a reason. In “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” it’s the turning point for grieving, aggrieved Sweeney, when he decides that one act of revenge won’t be enough, that the only way to slake his thirst is to murder the world.

The moment is unalloyed madness. “I’m alive at last, and I’m full of joy!” he sings, lingering on the last word of Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous lyric. But Nathaniel Stampley, the Sweeney Todd of Signature Theatre’s listless revival, is not a dispenser of chills — he’s merely chilly. The fire in the belly of Mrs. Lovett’s macabre oven doesn’t extend to his. We’re left to ponder a character who seems to have time on his hands, rather than blood.

Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler conceived 1979′s “Sweeney Todd” as a conveyor of radical disturbance — an English penny dreadful set to a score equal parts haunting and hilarious. But if you tamp down the horror, as director Sarna Lapine seems intent on doing, you dilute the visceral shock value of one of the greatest musicals ever written. The genre is grand guignol, a theatrical embrace of depravity. On this occasion, unfortunately, it’s only petite guignol.

There will never be another Stephen Sondheim

Have directors decided that an audience in 2023 can’t abide the skin-crawling machinations that are the grotesque heart of the show? Do we have to find Sweeney … relatable? Just as in director Thomas Kail’s sexier, juicier Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd” with Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, the emphasis is on a regular-seeming barber who’s had it up to here — oh and by the way, starts slitting his customer’s throats. The kind of guy about whom surprised neighbors say after his arrest, “He kept to himself.”

Well, it’s a take, I guess. Signature’s particularly tepid results are disappointing because director Lapine — the niece of frequent Sondheim creative partner James Lapine — has displayed great instincts with the canon before, particularly Broadway’s 2017 “Sunday in the Park With George,” with Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal. (“Sweeney Todd” was the first Sondheim show Signature ever did, in 1991, and produced it again in 2010.) Perhaps the intimacy of Signature’s 270-seat main stage, the Max, made the company a little squeamish about “Sweeney’s” graphic nature: The murders here are dramatized halfheartedly, by Stampley pulling bits of string or sparkly fabric out of the victims’ necks.

The bland concept — extending to designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s assortment of odd and cumbersome set pieces — is especially disconcerting, in view of some stronger contributions. The most rewarding are those by Bryonha Marie, as an embracingly amoral Mrs. Lovett, and Katie Mariko Murray, giving consummate comic charm to Sweeney’s daughter, Joanna.

The voices are all up to the score’s demands, as is the 15-member orchestra under Jon Kalbfleisch’s baton. And Rayanne Gonzales as the Beggar Woman, Christopher Michael Richardson as the slimy Beadle, Harrison Smith as man-child Tobias and Paul Scanlan as Joanna’s rescuer, Anthony, all bring a passionate commitment to their roles.

Marie’s Mrs. Lovett is a voluptuously joyful creation. The actress’s relish for the character’s sociopathic inclinations adds a helium to the proceedings that otherwise feels undersupplied. Costume designer Robert Perdziola does his part in illustrating Mrs. Lovett’s dizzily misguided grab for respectability: Her delightfully crazy outfit in Act 2 — after her meat pies fit for a cannibal prove a sensation — looks like something a Trapp Family singer might pick out while drunk shopping.

“The Worst Pies in London,” the syncopated culinary song that introduces Mrs. Lovett in Act 1, and “By the Sea,” her certifiable Act 2 ballad of corrupted connubial bliss, are applause-meter high points of the evening. Marie and the character are aligned in a demented, carpe diem sort of way. As Joanna, Murray offers a heavenly delivery of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and “Kiss Me,” the latter a duet, and ultimately a quartet. They stamp her once again as a divine Sondheim soprano. She showed herself similarly accomplished as Cinderella in Signature’s recent “Into the Woods.”

At other times, though, directorial choices severely bog the production down. “Johanna,” the unsettlingly lascivious aria for covetous Judge Turpin, is sometimes cut from the show. It’s included (bravely) here, but John Leslie Wolfe’s Turpin seems perplexedly stranded center stage, groping for a way to contextualize the judge’s self-loathing. “God, deliver me!” he sings, but is this penitential or maniacal?

More harmfully, “A Little Priest,” an Act 1 finale for the ages, loses its way in the fussy staging. Rather than leave Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett to their own giddy devices, playing a priceless word game about the people they’ll bake into their pies, Lapine and choreographer Alison Solomon add a cadre of ensemble members to the scene: They drag on body bags and affix them to hooks. The business is supposed to put flesh, if you will, on victims yet to be cooked. In practice, however, all it does is step on Sondheim’s brilliant puns.

Tinkering with a perfect musical should be attempted with extreme caution, as Signature’s spotty efforts illustrate. It’s within one’s rights to try to walk an audience in novel directions with this show. But on eggshells isn’t one of them.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Set, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Eric Norris; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; choreography, Alison Solomon. With Ian McEuen, Lawrence Redmond, Adelina Mitchell, Chani Wereley. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through July 9 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.


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