'Sweeney Todd' serves more than meat pies

Howard County Times

The newest restaurant in Howard County has a meat pie that's to die for. Its secret ingredients are revealed in Stephen Sondheim's brilliant 1979 musical "Sweeney Todd," in which a barber slits the throats of his customers and then provides the restaurant owner downstairs with very fresh meat for her celebrated pies.

This barber chair-to-table business model makes for bloody good theatrical entertainment in a boisterous Red Branch Theatre Company production. Seeing such a large-scale Broadway show in such a small venue means that you'll be getting, er, a close shave.

It's definitely a major advantage that the red-lit bloodshed and other melodramatic events convincingly take place right before your eyes, even if it's also true that the Red Branch cast often resorts to large gestures and shouted voices that would be more appropriate in a bigger theater and arguably seem overblown in this intimate setting. Although toning it down a bit might be in order, there's no denying that the premise in "Sweeney Todd" does not exactly call for subtle acting.

It's likewise a mixed blessing that the cast responds to this meat pie-filled material with such fervor that some of the spoken and sung lines are delivered so quickly that what is gained in emotional force is lost in clear diction. Of course, if you were a potential menu item you'd be worked up, too.

What matters most in this staging is that the lead roles are performed with the self-confidence you expect from the owners of a popular restaurant. It's a family operation, too, because a real-life husband and wife play these business partners.

Using this musical's full title, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," reinforces the fact that this barber is an extremely scary guy. The black-clad Russell Sunday gives a suitably blustery performance as Todd. He's also able to bring out the pathos in a character whose fury stems from his status as a former convict who returns home to find his wife apparently dead and his daughter now the ward of a vile judge. Sunday's swaggering style is just right for Todd's brusque personality.

The other half of this upstairs-downstairs business operation is Mrs. Lovett, who really has no excuse for being such a bad person. Janine Sunday has a lot of fun illustrating Mrs. Lovett's raw capitalist spirit; and she's especially delightful as she pounds dough and emits clouds of flour dust as she punches out herdialogue about the fiscal advantages of her new recipe.

The actress also finds the pathos in her character, because the seemingly heartless, widowed Mrs. Lovett does have a romantic soft spot in her heart for Sweeney Todd. This trait comes across particularly well in their duet "By the Sea."

Not to take anything away from the two lead actors in this production, but some of the best singing comes from the actors in two important supporting roles. Laura Whittenberger uses her operatic training to advantage as Todd's long-lost daughter, Johanna Barker. This character is not given much by way of dialogue, but Whittenberger makes the most of such musical numbers as "Green Finch and Linnet Bird."

The most affecting performance in the entire show belongs toPatrick Burr as Anthony Hope, the young man who ardently loves Johanna. When Burr sings "Johanna," there is much-appreciated lyrical beauty to offset the horror movie-level surroundings.

These principal characters frequently interact with many additional characters in densely populated London. Director Walter Ware III, musical director Dustin Merrell and choreographer Jenny Male do a good job of having them move and sing cohesively in such ensemble numbers as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

The decision to dress all of the characters in eclectic costumes that favor contemporary streetgarb neither helps nor hinders the production in a significant way; however, doing away with this musical's usual period costumes does make for an atmosphere that seems more appropriate for a staging of "Rent."

Add in the clear plastic wall covering, metal scaffolding and trash can-type props and it's a modern-looking place in which to tell the tale of the demon barber of Red BranchRoad.

"Sweeney Todd" runs through April 30 at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia. Advance tickets are $28, $22 for students and seniors; $30 for all at the door. Call 410-997-9352 or go to www.redbranchtheatrecompany.com

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