Review: ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at Red Branch Theatre Company

Red Branch Theatre Company has dubbed its new season “Paint It Red” with an eye toward the blood and mayhem in its selected slate of musicals. Up and running now is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to be followed this summer and fall by the homicidal musical Heathers and the after-hours camp favorite Evil Dead: The Musical.

Russell Sunday (Sweeney Todd) and Janine Sunday (Mrs. Lovett). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.
Russell Sunday (Sweeney Todd) and Janine Sunday (Mrs. Lovett). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

To underscore the theme, the proscenium stage and auditorium walls of the Drama Learning Center are draped in strips and sheets of plastic drop cloth for the company’s premiere of the 1979 Stephen Sondheim “splatter opera.”

The exposed scaffolds and pipes and plastic crates suggest neo-Brechtian street theater. Sure enough, the slouching stagehands and bystanding vagrants soon come together as an angry mob. When an ominous overture begins to lick and throb with life, this newly animated chorus invites us to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

Sondheim gave this 19th century “penny dreadful” all the musically literate airs and trappings of light opera. But there’s no mistaking its origins as a sordid, back alley yarn about an unjustly convicted London barber with a barbarous thirst for revenge.

When the street mob parts to make way for our Sweeney, we know we can buckle in for one heck of a night. The powerful Russell Sunday has been persuaded to return to the title role he played night-after-night at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in 2009, and for Signature Theatre as well.

If anything, Sunday has grown more commanding in the role. Now his intense anger is felt from his first appearance; his bitter belief that the world is a “black hole” seems even more warped and controlling. Maybe it’s the close quarters at Red Branch, but more than any Sweeney I’ve seen, Sunday arrives fully possessed.

It’s not until he stumbles upon the bakery shop of old chum Mrs. Lovett that he finds a new human identity and a channel for his vengeance. It is a partnership made all the tighter by the casting of the actor’s mega-talented real-life wife, Janine Sunday, in the role of that mad shop owner.

Janine Sunday takes the humor in the role and makes it her own, adding matronly snits, boisterous guffaws, and her own flicks of nastiness to the brew. Under her influence, Sweeney softens a bit and even rediscovers his former sense of humor in the delightful comic duet “A Little Priest.” It is an instant highlight of a show in which the two disparate characters come together with an unexpected rapport.

Both Sundays are known as marvelous singers. Russell’s sonorous ode to his former professional instruments (“My Friends”) and his chilling counterpart on “Pretty Women” are especially rich, and Janine’s girlish “I Am a Lass” (From “Sweet Polly Plunkett (Reprise)”) and “By the Sea” set up the final tragedy as never before. But this show proves again what enormously nuanced actors the pair can be.

Red Branch newcomer Kenneth Derby makes for an excellent villain as the corrupt and twisted Judge Turpin. His makeup underscores a cadaverous visage that is almost spectral, though the actor finds ways to keep his ambitions and longings flesh-and-blood human. Derby’s solo on “Johanna” and his lead part in “Pretty Women” both reveal his quality and control as a singer.

Patrick Burr (Anthony) and Laura Whittenberger (Johanna). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.
Patrick Burr (Anthony) and Laura Whittenberger (Johanna). Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

Patrick Burr returns to the Red Branch stage as Anthony, winning all hearts as the lovelorn sailor who expresses his yearning in “Johanna” and “Kiss Me.” Laura Whittenberger, another Red Branch newcomer, displays a wealth of vocal training from Peabody Conservatory and elsewhere as Johanna.

Also scoring with an indelible impression is Brian Patrick McNally, who turns the simple-minded Tobias into a sort of Pinocchio figure. His feeble promise to Mrs. Lovett that no one’s going to harm her (“Not While I’m Around”) is all the more touching for being delivered in such hushed and ineffectual tones.

Jesse D. Saywell’s amusing Pirelli, Santina Maiolatesi’s Beggar Woman, and Dean Davis’ multi-dimensional henchman Beadle Bamford are all strong additions to the cast and the storytelling.

Credit Director Walter Ware III for overseeing all elements of this very complicated piece of musical theater. His experience at Signature Theatre in Virginia and all across the D.C. metro area are evident in the focused fine-tuning of this production.

The cast of 'Sweeney Todd.' Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
The cast of ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Photo by Bruce F Press Photography.

Dustin Merrell’s live musical leadership keeps synthesizer, cello and percussion in synchronized service to those unrelenting reams of Sondheim’s amazing score.

Also contributing to a sense of fluid, professional environmental theater are Lynn Joslin’s Lighting Design, Chester Stacy’s versatile Scenic Design and Dustin Merrell’s Sound Design.

The intimate Drama Learning Center offers Sweeney-lovers a unique chance to immerse oneself in a favorite piece of musical theater. It’s a terrific start to what promises to be a bloody amazing season. Pie anyone?

Running Time: Almost 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays through April 23, 2016 Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles under the Hollywood sign, John Harding is an award-winning arts writer and editor. From 1982 on, he covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and served as arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group until 2012. A past chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, he co-hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program. Also known for his novels as John W. Harding, his newest book is “The Designated Virgin: A Novel of the Movies,” published by Pulp Hero Press. It and an earlier novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games,'” grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore.


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