David Hess and Judy Kaye
in Sweeney Todd
(©  David Allen Studio)
David Hess and Judy Kaye
in Sweeney Todd
(© David Allen Studio)
John Doyle's award-winning production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which is getting a special pre-national tour engagement at the American Conservatory Theatre, may get off to a clunky start; but it quickly smoothes itself out, becoming as sharp as the sinister straight-edge razor the demon barber of Fleet Street expertly wields.

Doyle gives a twist to this notorious musical thriller, about a devilish barber who exacts a sort of revenge for his wrongful imprisonment by slicing and dicing unsuspecting clients, by having the show's cast double as the production's orchestra. The actors are rarely without their instruments on stage, sometimes playing, singing, and acting all at once. Although this first feels too unusual, the instruments soon become a natural extension of the actors.

As Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, David Hess chooses an interesting interpretation of the menacing barber with a seemingly endless score to settle. His incarnation of Todd is an anguished man who lumbers around the stage, with his physical presence an extension of his beaten down soul. He is often clumsy and cumbersome; yet when his beloved razor is in his grip, he is masterful. Todd's big entrance onto the stage is out of a raised coffin, which incidentally works as an integral stage prop throughout the production. But this is not designed as a dramatic entrance by any means; it just sort of happens, and subsequently sets the tone for how the Todd character unfolds.

Tony winner Judy Kaye co-stars as Mrs. Lovett, the seemingly affable baker who eventually partners with Todd, expertly turning his corpses into popular meat pies to be devoured by an ever-hungry clientele. Her performance of "The Worst Pies in London" is charming and her performance of the tongue-twisting duet, "A Little Priest" is perfect. Besides being the show's comic relief, Kaye nails Mrs. Lovett's nurturing side as well. She is downright maternal during "Not While I'm Around," a duet between Lovett and Tobias (Edmund Bagnell), a young boy she adopts by default after Todd murders his guardian.

Besides showing their chops as skilled musicians, this cast -- which includes Lauren Molina (Johanna), Benjamin Magnuson (Antony), and Diana DiMarzio (The Beggar Woman), all of whom appeared in the show's 2005 Broadway production -- does an amazing job executing the many nuances of Sondheim's complex characters. They help bring forth a production that is as complex and dissonant as Sondheim's famous score.

Doyle's production design is minimalist, yet sprinkled with touches of whimsy that harkens Edward Gorey or Tim Burton. Some characters are dressed for a period production (though very modestly so), while others are dressed for the here and now. For instance, the infamous Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh) dons a simple single-breasted suit for his role.

Most importantly, the piece's underlying humanity comes through in the production, which prevents Sweeney Todd from becoming the theatrical equivalent of a horror flick. And that's what makes the show pretty brilliant. How many slasher films have you seen where you felt empathy for the slasher?