Signature Theatre serves up an excellent production of Stephen Sondheim's murderous musical.
DC favorite Edward Gero has the title role, and his voice is not always quite up to the rigors of Sondheim's challenging songs, faltering occasionally in pitch and sometimes sounding patchy or tremulous in the big notes. But his vocal limitations do not seem to diminish the strange, splintered beauty of this macabre tale. Sometimes, his voice even accents Todd's smoldering resentment, and he otherwise projects a significantly vivid presence.
Sherri L. Edelen's Mrs. Lovett is a quivering, emotionally needy creature, displaying less of the steely inner reserve we usually see with this off-kilter killer. Edelin exploits Lovett's daffiness with a vaudevillian's keen comic timing, wringing comedy with precise vocal twists and facial expressions and a lovely singing voice. But Edelin also puts the woman's heart on display. For her, this is a love story, and the homicidal pie-baking is not merely a commercial enterprise. Edelen's softer approach to the role smooths out the rougher edges of Gero's portrayal, adding a resonant layer of human dimension.
As the young lovers, Johanna and Anthony, Erin Driscoll and Gregory Maheu unleash fresh-faced charm and pure, clear-toned voices that seem to cut through the fog, both actual and emotional. Chris Van Cleave is a nuanced Judge Turpin, the actor's seasoned virility in effective counterpoint to his startlingly clear inner turmoil and guilt. The unusual mixture makes the character more interesting and dimensional, not any less malevolent.
Better still, the 18 cast members pump the theater full of so much energy that one can almost forget the fact that the orchestra has been stripped way down to just four musicians. Conductor Zak Sandler has done yeoman's work paring down Jonathan Tunick's charts to the barest essentials.