'Sweeney Todd' is razor-sharp in Pearthree's version at Spotlighters


On Halloween weekend, when most children were trick-or-treating and most adults were partying, the Musical Theatre Machine opened an appropriately grisly production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical thriller, "Sweeney Todd," at the Spotligters.

There's no question in this critic's mind that the Spotlighters was the most glorious -- and ghoulish -- place to be. Nor at this point can there be much doubt about the impressive abilities of MTM producer and director Todd Pearthree.

Indeed, the bigger the challenge and the more complicated the material, the better Pearthree seems to get. And "Sweeney Todd" is certainly challenging and complicated.

Even the show's original director, Harold Prince, was initially uncomfortable with the notion of musicalizing the British tale of an unjustly persecuted, vengeful and eventually homicidal barber whose victims were baked into meat pies.

Prince got over his discomfort by envisioning the production as a comment on the Industrial Revolution -- a concept whose staging requires far vaster quarters than the minuscule Spotlighters (a theater which, coincidentally, is located next door to a real-life barber shop).

Sondheim, however, insisted that the show's primary theme was obsession, and that is also the thrust of Pearthree's interpretation, as well as of Braxton Peters' portrayal of the title character -- a role he also played at Cockpit in Court a few years back.

Obsession is evident in Peters' expression from the start, when Todd returns to London and is reunited with his gleaming razors in the exposition-filled number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Longing, and even love, color Peters' gaze and his rich, baritone voice as he addresses the razors with the eerie lyrics: "Rest now my friends . . . /Soon you'll know splendors."

Recognizing that Todd's story is somewhat of a stomach-turner, the show's creators lightened it with the comic character of Mrs. Lovett. In the role of this creative cook, rotund Nancy Tarr Hart looks like she's enjoyed more than a few of her own "worst pies in London," to quote another lyric, and she and Peters deliver a hilarious rendition of "A Little Priest," the song that compares the culinary qualities of ingredients ranging from bishop to judge.

Stunning voices have become almost a given in MTM productions, and this is no exception, exemplified by the magnificent quartet that results when "Kiss Me," sung by Jane E. Brown and Richard W. Lloyd, as the young lovers of the piece, blends into "Ladies in Their Sensitivities," sung by Ron Bopst and B. Thomas Rinaldi, as the villains.

The show includes several creative directorial touches. The pig masks worn by the guests at the villains' masquerade party are an apt addition, as is having the pivotal character of the mysterious Beggar Woman sing for alms as she exits through the audience. However, Pearthree also indulges a bit of overkill -- to make a bad pun -- particularly when an actor bites into a meat pie and spits out a finger.

Such visual shortcomings are few, however, and they are easily overshadowed by the clever and chilling work of set designer Bob Jones and lighting designer Todd Sestero, who know how to get the maximum effect out of minimal dimensions. Their designs are further proof that director Pearthree has assembled a company whose attention to detail is so exacting that, to use a tonsorial term, scarcely a hair is out of place; the result is a production that shines even brighter than Todd's glistening razors.

" Sweeney Todd"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Through Nov. 28

Tickets: $15

Call: (410) 825-2554

*** 1/2

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