Harriet Harris is the perfect Mrs. Lovett in Julianne Boyd's mostly compelling production of the classic Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical.
A schizo glint gainsaying her porcelain-doll features, she's the kind of lovelorn schemer, at once flighty and flinty, that playwright Hugh Wheeler and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim must have dreamed. Granted, Harris' voice is not huge -- but the same goes for the role's originator, the inimitable Angela Lansbury.
Director Julianne Boyd has tucked a nine-member orchestra right into the proscenium; a sliver of apron often brings the action right into viewers' laps. The layout is especially effective when Todd (Jeff McCarthy) and the crack chorus (their diction is so crystalline that you won't miss a single witty syllable) point out the potential murderers who might just happen to be sharing your armrest.
As the barber, McCarthy is a tad shy in the demonic department. He just can't seem to shake his leading-man good looks -- or the New York actor tic of pointing with forefinger and pinkie. Often, McCarthy appears more intent on telegraphing an emotion than in letting it take over. His rich voice, however, is well suited to the role.
As Judge Turpin, Ed Dixon is creepily lubricious. This production restores his own twisted version of "Johanna," a concupiscent fantasy delivered with one eye to the keyhole, one hand flagellating unto climax. (The sex depicted onstage here is not exactly circumspect: even Mrs. Lovett's romantic ditty "By the Sea" gets a bit of bump and grind.)
Branch Woodman strikes some riveting high notes as Todd's imposter-Italian rival, Pirelli, and if Zachary Clause at first seems insufficiently young and vulnerable to play Tobias, the rationale for his casting kicks in the minute he embarks on a silken, tender "Not While I'm Around." As Anthony, Shonn Wiley is utter perfection: a beautiful boy who leads with his heart and sings with unassuming, astounding purity. Unfortunately, Christianne Tisdale is way too intense and youthful as the broken Beggar Woman, and while Sarah Stevens can deliver Johanna's notes, their lyricism eludes her.
Special credit is also due to Jen Moeller's Dickensian/Depression Era costuming and the morning-after makeup that makes ghouls of one and all. Above all, however, Boyd is faithful to the show's singular music, and it shines here in all its peculiar glory.