A bit hasty with my morning ablutions yesterday, I was looking less than my best as I headed into Shirlington’s Signature Theatre to see Sweeney Todd, and I briefly contemplated ducking into the barbershop next door to the theater for a shave.
But when I recalled the plot of the Stephen Sondheim musical, based on a mid-19th-century penny dreadful about a London barber who murders his clients and turns them into meat pies with the help of his downstairs neighbor, I changed my mind.
To allow a perfect stranger to apply a straight razor to your bare neck requires a significant level of trust in one’s fellow man, something Sweeney Todd can no longer do after being exiled to Botany Bay on a trumped-up charge by a corrupt judge who coveted his wife.
That was Todd’s real crime, he tells a young sailor at the start of the show — foolishly trusting in other human beings. “The cruelty of men is wondrous as Peru. You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”
Todd’s other tragic flaw is that he is so blinded by the need for revenge to assuage his mortally wounded male ego (the judge has metaphorically castrated him with his “vulture’s claw” by stealing Todd’s wife and child and depriving him of his place in his family and in society) that he can no longer recognize his fellow man or woman, not even when the very people he loved and lost are standing right before him.
He even becomes a stranger to himself, dissociating from his former identity, that of Benjamin Barker, and choosing the sobriquet of Sweeney Todd, a variation of Tod, the German word for death.
Director Sarna Lapine, an experienced interpreter of Sondheim musicals who has Sondheim in her DNA (her uncle, James Lapine, wrote the book for and directed Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Passion) wisely avoids creating a cartoon monster in this Sweeney Todd, but the elegant actor who plays him at Signature, Nathaniel Stampley, seems too composed, too much in control throughout this performance, even after his initial plan for murderous revenge against the judge (John Leslie Wolfe) and his solicitous beadle (Christopher Michael Richardson) goes awry and his rage spirals into full-on omnicide (“They all deserve to die — even you Mrs. Lovett, even I”).
“I’m alive at last and I’m full of joy,” Sweeney sings when he begins his second-act killing spree. But I didn’t quite believe him. There’s more of Eichmann than Edmond Dantès in his Sweeney, and his murders feel officious, even perfunctory.
Jesse Belsky’s lighting design marks this dramatic shift with a transition from pale moonlight to volcanic orange and red, but this Sweeney remains an icy and cold-blooded killer.
The orchestra sounds measured too. With a complement of 15 professional musicians, conductor Jon Kalbfleisch’s pit contains slightly more than half the number called for in the original orchestrations. Sweeney Todd is a quasi-opera, and it merits a big sound. But I didn’t quite hear the Bernard Hermann–esque slashes evoking Psycho in the opening “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” or the Wagnerian unresolved erotic tension in “Pretty Women.”
The fireworks in this show come courtesy of the vocal pyrotechnics and acrobatic acting of Bryonha Marie’s Mrs. Lovett — baker of the self-described “worst pies in London” — and Rayanne Gonzales’ Beggar Woman. Marie’s performance deserves special attention here. If Angela Lansbury, who originated the role on Broadway, played Mrs. Lovett as flighty, and Annaleigh Ashford, Tony-nominated this year for her performance in the Broadway revival, plays it as comedic, Marie plays it as both, with an added dose of winsome sensuality.
The show is most alive when Marie is on stage, most notably in “God, That’s Good,” where she holds court in the dining room of her newly thriving pie shop wearing a candy-cane–striped dress courtesy of costume designer Robert Perdziola that makes her look like Mrs. Claus from Hell.
Katie Mariko Murray and Paul Scanlan, both gifted singers, make something solid out of small roles as the young lovers Johanna and Anthony. Harrison Smith’s Tobias Ragg feels like the most authentically Dickensian presence in this production, but the actor is perhaps a tad old to be playing a surrogate child to Mrs. Lovett. As a consequence, their duet together (“Not While I’m Around”) doesn’t feel appropriately maternal and her willingness to sacrifice him isn’t as shocking as it could be. (I can’t help but see glimmers of Sondheim’s fractious relationship with his own mother in the relationship between these two characters. On her death bed, Sondheim’s mother is reported to have told her son that her only regret in life “was giving birth to you.”)
Scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams wisely avoids sequestering Sweeney in a second-floor barbershop where his murders are at a safe remove from the audience. She makes us watch — and even be complicit in — his killings. But I wish she had trusted the Signature audience to get all the deliciously dark double entendres in “A Little Priest.” Instead, she hangs life-size body bags oozing bloody entrails all around the stage, as if to explain the punchline — “they’re talking about grinding people into pies!”
This company, richly deserving of its reputation as the home of Sondheim in America, knows that one doesn’t attempt to upstage Sondheim’s words. They’re always the star of the show.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays through July 9, 2023, in the MAX Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($56–$103), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.
Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Masks are always optional but strongly encouraged in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on Thursdays and Sundays. Face masks are optional but strongly encouraged inside the performance spaces on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Signature’s COVID Safety Measures can be found here.