Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Theater review:

An up-close and updated 'Sweeney Todd' at Rep Stage

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

That conflicted slicer is back, dispensing his peculiar brand of justice with wicked, if ever so tuneful, abandon, in a lean revival of “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Rep Stage.

Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, inspired by a Victorian-era potboiler, has never lost its ability to shock since cutting its way onto Broadway in 1979.

Although a London-set period piece about serial murder and human-fortified meat pies, the work certainly speaks to other times, including our own. Abuse of authority and economic hardships — key elements in “Sweeney Todd” — are issues that never grow stale.

That said, the Rep Stage production, directed and designed by the company’s producing artistic director Joseph W. Ritsch, tries to underline the contemporary relevance too hard.

This “Sweeney Todd” confronts audiences with images referencing Donald Trump (“Make London Great Again”), Theresa May, the anti-gun movement and more. Something subtler might have actually made the point stronger — although I did like one whimsical sign: “Keep Calm and Eat Pies.”

These days, when opera companies embrace “Sweeney Todd” for the richness of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, the vivid layers of Hugh Wheeler’s book, it takes a bit of adjusting to the intimate scale at Rep Stage.

A three-piece orchestra, led by Stacey Antoine, can only do so much to fill out the music, although the playing is very effective. And, with an eight-member cast handling all the roles and also serving as the chorus, something is lost in terms of scale and impact.

On the plus side, though, the intimacy provides an up-close experience that can get quite bracing and involving. If the amplification were reined in — in so small a space, microphones could probably be dispensed with — even greater immediacy might be generated.

In the title role, the big-voiced V. Savoy McIlwain seems at times to think he’s starring in “Phantom of the Opera,” shouting and carrying on with histrionic ferocity. His quieter moments are far more potent, revealing the character’s struggle between the pursuit of vengeance and the restoration of the family that once gave him hope.

Jade Jones makes a deliciously saucy Mrs. Lovett, the pie-maker who recognizes the marketable potential in all those dead bodies Todd produces. Jones sings with terrific fire; occasionally, as in “By the Sea,” she lets it rip with gospel/soul inflections that prove quite tasty.

Nigel Reed is every bit the imperious Judge Turpin, the man who wronged Todd. It’s a beautifully layered performance that almost makes you feel empathy for the guy. He and McIlwain produced lovely phrasing in the “Pretty Women” duet.

John Taos Foster is a charmer as simple, trusting Tobias and shows an endearing vocal sensitivity in “Not While I’m Around,” one of Sondheim’s most indelible songs.

Particularly stylish singing and nuanced acting come from Noah Israel as Anthony. Benjamin Lurye may not be fully menacing as the evil Beadle, but he sure commands the stage when he lets loose with his bright, finely focused tenor.

Suzanne Lane does sure, engaging work as Johanna. Justine Icy Moral handles multiple assignments in dynamic form.

I’ve seen my share of productions that spew “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-level blood for each throat-slashing. Squeamish types (you’re not alone) should find comfort in the not-so-literal approach taken at Rep Stage in those scenes.

After the barber’s rapacious razor does its thing, the dispatched victims perform an understated, almost balletic action in this staging. Curiously, several folks at the performance I attended found all of that terribly funny, which, if only for an instant, made me fantasize about how Sweeney Todd might respond to their distracting laughter.


If you go

The Rep Stage production of "Sweeney Todd" runs through Sept. 23 at the Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 443-518-1500, or go to repstage.org.


tim.smith@baltsun.com

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