Stephen Sondheim transformed the penny dreadful tale of Sweeney Todd into a long, dark musical, populated by eccentric characters engaged in villainous pursuits on the streets of London. His people embody the themes of personal gain at the expense of others and the broad divide between the haves and have-nots who long for revenge. The work has endured as one of Sondheim's most memorable shows, losing not a jolt of the power to enthrall an audience.
Director Spiro Veloudos, artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company, is a longtime Sondheim groupie and an excellent storyteller, clarifying the plotlines that twist throughout the revelations of Todd's quest and the motivations of the characters surrounding him. Another of the director's strengths is his deep knowledge of the local acting pool, which sometimes leads to a surprising performance from a familiar actor, such as Christopher Chew in the role of Sweeney Todd. While Chew has appeared often in many area musicals, his performance as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has tapped all of his talents. He invests his physical presence and stunning vocal capabilities — not to mention his sex appeal — into this tormented man to such a degree that the audience is rooting for him in pursuit of his vengeance, no matter the body count from his wide-swiping knife.
After a foreboding prologue by the full ensemble in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," Chew as Todd enters as an escaped prodigal, calm on the exterior, even though his former home surroundings make him burn inside. Fifteen years earlier, he had been sent to prison on a trumped-up charge so that the black-hearted Judge Turpin could make off with Todd's beautiful wife and infant daughter. Todd finds neither wife nor daughter waiting for him, which gives him further cause for retribution. He links up with Mrs. Lovett, a pie maker, and rents a room in her house, a two-story set designed by Janie E. Howland, that resembles a cement-walled prison or abattoir. Todd pursues his murderous barber trade, while Mrs. Lovett becomes his accomplice helping to hide the evidence of his crimes in her pie shop. Meanwhile, Judge Turpin, who has raised Johanna, Todd's daughter, alone, is determined to marry the girl, against her will. Other characters who figure in the plotline include the Judge's accomplice, The Beadle, and the young sailor, Anthony, who is in love with Johanna; the servant boy, Tobias Ragg, and a mysterious Beggar Woman.
Amelia Broome, offers a lively and well-sung Mrs. Lovett, creating a vaudeville cliché of the character, using cutesy facial expressions and eye-rolling rather than dwelling on her desperate need for emotional and financial security. The opera singer Paul C. Soper as Judge Turpin makes a fine foil for the rough-edged Todd, especially during a scene that depicts self-flagellation. Remo Airaldi's Beadle is an unctuous portrait of offhand evil, especially during a marvelous bit of singing while he plays Mrs. Lovett's organ-like harmonium. The young lovers, Meghan Laflam as Johanna and Sam Simahk as Anthony, personify innocence with their well-matched voices. Phil Tayler as the needy servant boy, Tobias, is a heartbreaker, adding dimension to his string of performances.
Much credit for the success of the production is due to longtime Lyric Stage Music Director Jonathan Goldberg, who also leads the seven-member orchestra and plays keyboard. Goldberg has blended the actors' voices into a glorious evocation of Sondheim's complex score, which elevates Sweeney Todd into a spiritual quest about man's suffering in the face of injustice.
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