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Good and evil make for intense 'Sweeney Todd' at Laurel Mill Playhouse

Chad Wheeler, as Sweeney Todd, and Kay-Megan Washington, as pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, in the Laurel Mill Playhouse production of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
Chad Wheeler, as Sweeney Todd, and Kay-Megan Washington, as pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, in the Laurel Mill Playhouse production of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." (Photo by John Cholod)

A motley crew of harmonizing ghouls have arrived just in time to rattle Main Street for Halloween in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," directed by Laurel resident T. J. Lukacsina.

With complex music and lyrics written by American musical theater icon Stephen Sondheim that compare to the classical music of the Renaissance, the musical thriller is sometimes performed as an opera.

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With book by Hugh Wheeler, "Sweeney Todd" opened on Broadway in 1979 and won eight Tony Awards, including best musical. Johnny Depp starred in the 2007 musical horror film directed by Tim Burton.

Produced by North Laurel resident Maureen Rogers with assistance from Laila Riazi, the show is an exciting choice for the small theater, which barely contains the energy of musical director William Georg's pit orchestra and Lukacsina's ardent cast.

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The macabre storyline — a barber returns to London to seek revenge against powerful enemies and forms an unspeakable alliance with a pie-maker — is almost too much to handle in such an intimate space.

Over 30 beautifully performed musical numbers accompanied by the pit orchestra — Georg on percussion/synthesizer, conductor Brandon Heishman on piano, Bryan Hwan on violin, Ina O'Ryan and Juliana Torres on cello, Jeff Eckert on bass and Cally Messick on the French horn — tell Todd's tale as love, hate, innocence and villainy circle through a plot driven by obsession.

As the curtain opens to a depressive yet visually pleasing set (Lukacsina is also credited as scenic and lighting designer), the company's excellent performance of "Prologue–The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" literally overtakes the audience.

Ghastly makeup by Jaqueline Maranville and period costumes by Lynn Kellner prove eerily appropriate; especially when members of the cast stand in the audience and sing directly to unsuspecting audience members, a scare tactic that Lukacsina uses more than once.

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In a notable scene during Act 1, the visual composition and choreography that accompanies the musical number, "Poor Thing" — a violent scene performed by actors wearing white masks — are stunning.

The story begins by introducing light and dark themes (good and evil) through Garrett Matthews as Anthony Hope and Chad Wheeler as Sweeney Todd, who have just arrived in London.

Hope exudes purity in Matthews' interpretation of the young man who rescued Todd at sea and falls in love with his daughter (played by Carolyn Freel). The depth of Wheeler's character, who travels from melancholy (Todd seems to almost like the young man at the beginning) into pure evil is both interesting to watch and bone chilling to contemplate.

The opening night audience loved Kay-Megan Washington's stage presence as the amoral pie-maker, Mrs. Lovett. Washington handled her character and all of her vocals, including solos, quite well. And Wheeler as Todd sang better than Depp did in the movie.

Across the board, Lukacsina is blessed with an able cast.

The chemistry created by Freel as Johanna and Matthews as Hope tosses in one bit of hope for the nature of humanity; and Daniel Plante (as the villainous Judge Turpin) and Andrew Exner (as The Beadle) are very easy to hate.

Lauren Lowell also performs well as the pathetic and obviously insane beggar woman with a secret, as does Michael Iacone as Adolfo Pirelli, the bad guy who becomes Todd's first victim.

The ensemble and others — Josie Dubois, Chris Kabara, JilliAnne McCarty, Alex Pecas, Amanda Polanowski, Amanda Roberts, Zachary Roth and Reed Sigman — fit like gloves into the troubled world of "Sweeny Todd."

But the standout performance of opening night has to go to Sophia Riazi-Sekowski, who crosses gender as the street urchin Tobias Ragg.

"Sweeney Todd" is a disturbing show for a child to perform in, and Riazi-Sekowski belted her lyrics so bravely and lived each moment so believably — her performance with Lovett in "Not While I'm Around" likely broke every heart in the audience — that one must admire her courage as well as her spirited performance.

Beautifully directed and performed, the Playhouse's rendition of "Sweeny Todd" easily lives up to Lukacsina's goal in his program note: it pushes everyone involved, including audience members, way past their comfort zones.

Anyone not up to the thrill of up-close contact with ghouls may want to avoid sitting in the aisle seats.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" continues through Sunday, Nov. 15, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. General admission is $22. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $17. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2, or buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org.

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