The demon barber who’s fascinated storytellers and audiences since his first appearance in the “Penny Dreadfuls” of Victorian England lands at Rep Stage in a classy rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
With a book by Hugh Wheeler, the wildly popular Tony-winning musical thriller opened on Broadway in 1979 and has been profusely revived on and off Broadway, in opera houses and on tours around the world.
Directed and choreographed for Rep Stage by producing artistic director Joseph W. Ritsch, with musical direction by Stacey Antoine, “Sweeney Todd” kicks off the professional regional theatre’s 2018-2019 season in the Horowitz Center’s intimate Studio Theatre.
As the house doors open, stage fog wafts across an atmospheric set designed by Ritsch and Mollie Singer to represent modern east London. A “Turpin” sign on the upper steel level proclaiming “Make London Great Again” represents Sweeney Todd’s nemesis; a barber’s pole and blood red “Pies” sign stake Todd and the infamous Mrs. Lovett’s claim on Fleet Street.
Sarah Cubbage’s eclectic costumes blend punk and goth styles with Victorian influence. Lighting and sound designers Conor Mulligan and Mark Smedley focus their art on swaying audience emotion through showmanship without graphic depictions of violence.
In his director’s notes, Ritsch writes that Sondheim has said the melodrama has no underlying meaning, and wonders, “Is this is still true in 2018?” And as the devil is often in the details of interpretation, European street art on the set walls speaks of American socio-political activism.
As Mulligan’s lights rise, Ben Shaver on piano, Antoine on reeds and Raphael Erfe on violin accompany Sondheim’s complex musical scores and witty lyrics sight unseen. The company sets a high vocal bar in the opening prologue, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”
V. Savoy McIlwain enters majestically as the titular character in “No Place Like London” (performed with Noah Israel and Justine Icy Moral) and the macabre journey through Todd’s sinister alliance with a smitten piemaker begins.
McIlwain’s vocals are especially passionate when he reveals the monster that Todd is in “My Friends” (with Jade Jones) and in an anguished solo “Epiphany.”
As Mrs. Lovett, Jones cheerfully bakes the flesh of Todd’s victims into meat pies. In total harmony with her character’s purple dreadlocks and flamboyant costumes, she brings impeccable timing and comic relief to the role.
“Little Priest,” which Jones and McIlwain perform as the final number in Act 1, is a comedic high point. But Jones’ duplicitous facial expressions in “Not While I’m Around” in Act 2 should give anyone chills.
Rep Stage veteran Nigel Reed manages to infuse the evil Judge Turpin with a spark of humanity, most notably in his Act 1 solo, “Johanna.” Turpin and his sycophant, Beadle, also well-played by Benjamin Lurye, are more than entertaining in “Ladies and Their Sensitivities.”
And the black-leather-clad Lurye is outstanding performing “Parlour Songs” in Act 2.
Opera-trained soprano Suzanne Lane’s crystalline voice kills every high note as Turpin’s lovely bird in a gilded cage. Her performances as Johanna of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” “Kiss Me” (with Israel) and “Johanna” simply shine.
As Johanna’s love interest, Israel delivers a dashing, compassionate Anthony.
Israel creates sweet energy performing “Ah, Miss” and “Johanna,” and he and Lane look and sound beautiful together in “Kiss Me.”
Moral finds prolific moments to flex her impressive acting and vocal range. Switching gender and characters on a dime, she portrays the roles of the beggar woman, Pirelli and Jonas Fogg. As the beggar woman in “No Place Like London,” she enlivens the bawdy lyrics, “How would ya like a little muff, dear.…” with delightful physicality.
Making his professional debut as Tobias Ragg, high school senior John Taos Foster certainly holds his own in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “God That’s Good,” but his winning performance of “Not While I’m Around” stands out as a tear jerker.
Although some of Ritsch’s symbols and memes are a bit confusing, he has choreographed many lovely, stylized moments in a fresh and technically stunning production that is gorgeously sung by a small cast with powerful voices.
And just for fun, a barber chair awaits brave audience members in the lobby for picture taking after the show.
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" continues through Sunday, Sept. 23, in the Studio Theatre Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, HCC Campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Admission is $40 general; $35 seniors, $15 students and $10 Thursdays. For tickets and additional information, go to repstage.org.