Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
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As revered, even loved, as Sweeney Todd has become in the decades since its Broadway premiere, the musical was in no way a sure thing. Sondheim wrote an all-encompassing score to Hugh Wheeler's book based on Christopher Bond's version of a Victorian "penny dreadful," and producer-director Harold Prince emphasized the themes of alienation and class hatred in his overwhelming physical production. Since then, the story of the murderous barber and the resourceful pie-maker who loves him has been told in many ways; Signature blends the intimacy of the MAX Theatre, where seating surrounds three sides of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' scenic design, with nuanced performances that bring out the humanity (flawed as it may be) of these characters.
Even before the action begins, the set design and Jesse Belsky's lighting design set the sepulchral tone for the production: walls of swirling black and gray, floor grates belching thick steam, windows covered by institutional-looking metal screens, forbidding metal doors, and walkways illuminated in blood red. Conductor Jon Kalbfleisch and his 15 skilled musicians hover above the stage.
First of all is Nathaniel Stampley as Sweeney, the London barber who escapes wrongful imprisonment in Australia to, as he hopes, resume his contented domestic life. Upon discovering that this is not possible, he becomes consumed with a need to avenge the suffering of the people he loved and lost. Rather than Sweeney bringing attention to himself, Stampley begins as a stoic, intimidating figure who lets his actions speak for him. Over time, although he gains momentary relief through his efforts, he can only sustain himself through his rage.
In contrast, Bryonha Marie seems to be in constant motion as Mrs. Lovett, whom the audience (and Sweeney) first sees as she wrestles with a large, sticky ball of dough. Marie embodies a character who is funny and knows she is, who believes in her own warmth and empathy (with a few blind spots), and she demonstrates exactly who she is when she comes into some money. Her Act II outfit is the highlight of Robert Perdziola's costume design: a full-skirted dress in a red, black and white print that resembles an oversized playing card.
Harrison Smith plays forlorn Tobias as a lost child in a hulking body; his devotion to, and naïve love for, Mrs. Lovett is both true and overwhelming. Rayanne Gonzales is a more combative Beggar Woman than is often seen, Christopher Michael Richardson a hilariously pompous Beadle, and John Leslie Wolfe a Judge Turpin seemingly strangled by his own guilt. (This production includes the often-cut Judge's solo, but director Sarna Lapine and choreographer Alison Solomon have chosen to keep the character from expressing his taboo impulses too explicitly.)
Since the setting is intimate and fairly simple, the director and designers have used ingenuity to create some of the horrific effects. Where spectacle cannot be employed, imagination and suggestion can succeed in filling the gaps.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through July 9, 2023, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Anthony Hope: Paul Scanlan