Christine Baranski and Brian Stokes Mitchellin Sweeney Todd(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Christine Baranski and Brian Stokes Mitchell
in Sweeney Todd
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sweeney Todd, the first production of the Kennedy Center's mammoth, four month long Sondheim Celebration, is a solid artistic achievement and already a commercial success--which should probably come as no surprise to anyone. There are at least two pleasant revelations here, however. One is how well this musical about a murderous barber in Victorian London has held up in the 23 years since it hit New York and won eight Tony Awards; the other is how good Christine Baranski is in the key role of Mrs. Lovett, purveyor of suspicious meat pies.

This is a full-fledged production starring one of Broadway's top leading men, the charismatic Brian Stokes Mitchell, and featuring a complex, massive set. Jonathan Tunick's full, original orchestrations are played by about 30 musicians under the direction of Larry Blank. The 72-year-old Stephen Sondheim has been on hand for consultation with director Christopher Ashley, making this more of an authentic revival than just another provincial production of an old favorite.

The Sondheim Celebration will feature six of the composer's works, playing in repertory clusters, and this joyous carnival of the macabre starts it off with a high-energy blast. Based on an old English story that some historians claim has a basis in fact, and upon a subsequent play by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd is an operatic thriller that did much to change the face of the American musical theater. Hugh Wheeler wrote the book for the show, but Sondheim's score is almost continuous, ranging from pounding anthems to lovely ballads and featuring lyrics that are as likely to be abrasive as they are funny or moving. Sondheim has cleverly incorporated arias, hymns, lullabies, ballads--even the Dies Irae from the Roman Catholic mass for the dead has served as inspiration for "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which begins and ends the tale.

The artistic presence of Sondheim is reinforced by a blue scrim, acting as a curtain on the Eisenhower Theatre stage, that has his signature emblazoned in white in the lower right-hand corner. Suddenly, an ominous crash of organ music, accompanied by the piercing shriek of a steam whistle, jolts the audience back to 19th century London--a filthy world creaking its way into the industrial age, a world where life is cheap. Unjustly exiled to the penal colony in Australia by an evil judge, a pathetic barber escapes and returns to London 15 years later to seek revenge. Taking the name Sweeney Todd, he falls in with the frightful Mrs. Lovett, who abets him in murder. In a subplot, an earnest young sailor who helped pluck Todd from the ocean coincidentally falls in love with the mad barber's daughter, now being held against her will by the judge.

Mitchell glowers menacingly as the increasingly insane Todd, his eyebrows swept upward into points that give him a satanic appearance, his expressive baritone at full force and soaring operatically in "My Friends" (a love song to his cutting tools). The low notes of an earlier number, "No Place Like London" seem difficult for Mitchell--his voice becomes muddy in this register--but this is a momentary lapse in a dynamic, larger than life performance.

As the mischievous and conniving Mrs. Lovett, Christine Baranski, previously famous for light comic acting and not widely recognized as a singer, delights with a strong, rich voice that masters Sondheim's complex music; she easily handles some of the more difficult patter songs and shows only the slightest strain on some of the high notes. Baranski instantly commands the stage when we first meet her with a comic tour de force performance of "The Worst Pies in London," alternately pummeling dough and stamping the life out of bugs as clouds of flour rise about her.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Walter Charlesin Sweeney Todd(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Walter Charles
in Sweeney Todd
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Casting Mitchell and Baranski together was an inspired choice, and they make a great team: Where his dark eyes smolder with rage, hers are wide open and blue, reflecting Mrs. Lovett's easy acceptance of murder as simply an aid to commerce. The supporting cast is also strong with Walter Charles as the perverted Judge Turpin, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Todd's daughter Johanna, and Hugh Panaro as the sailor Anthony Hope. Charles' Judge is flinty and self-absorbed, building tension by drumming his fingers and humming as he sits in Todd's barber chair, unaware of the danger inches from his throat. Keenan-Bolger radiates youth and innocence as she sings "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." Panaro gives Anthony a bit more grit than the usual young, romantic hero as he serenades the object of his affections with the uplifting ballad "Johanna." Another standout performance is turned in by Kevin Ligon as the effete con man/barber Pirelli, who becomes Todd's first victim.

There are a lot of faces familiar to Washington area theatergoers in the ensemble. That is due, no doubt, to the fact that the Sondheim Celebration's artistic director is Eric Schaeffer, who holds the same position at Signature Theatre, a local company with a reputation for fine productions of Sondheim shows. Derek McLane's scenic design is a palpable, sensual presence as the manifestation of an industrial machine that, much like Todd and Lovett, drained the life from people caught up in its action and ground them down. Except for the virginal Johanna, brilliantly outfitted in white, the citizens of this unhappy place are mostly clad in drab, dark colors, with fog and smoke constantly swirling about them.

Yet, despite its grim subject matter, this Sweeney Todd somehow manages to seem exuberant and expansive, and is often a lot of fun. Its composer's range will be on full display next week with the opening of something completely different: the Sondheim Celebration production of Company, starring John Barrowman and Lynn Redgrave.