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Review | This version of ‘Sweeney Todd’ commits a cardinal sin: It’s bloodless


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The music is known as “Epiphany” for a purpose. In “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Road,” it’s the turning level for grieving, aggrieved Sweeney, when he decides that one act of revenge received’t be sufficient, that the one approach to slake his thirst is to homicide the world.

The second is unalloyed insanity. “I’m alive finally, and I’m filled with pleasure!” he sings, lingering on the final phrase of Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous lyric. However Nathaniel Stampley, the Sweeney Todd of Signature Theatre’s listless revival, shouldn’t be a dispenser of chills — he’s merely chilly. The hearth within the stomach of Mrs. Lovett’s macabre oven doesn’t lengthen to his. We’re left to ponder a personality who appears to have time on his fingers, relatively than blood.

Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler conceived 1979′s “Sweeney Todd” as a conveyor of radical disturbance — an English penny dreadful set to a rating equal elements haunting and hilarious. However in case you tamp down the horror, as director Sarna Lapine appears intent on doing, you dilute the visceral shock worth of one of many biggest musicals ever written. The style is grand guignol, a theatrical embrace of depravity. On this event, sadly, it’s solely petite guignol.

There’ll by no means be one other Stephen Sondheim

Have administrators determined that an viewers in 2023 can’t abide the skin-crawling machinations which might be the grotesque coronary heart of the present? Do we’ve to search out Sweeney … relatable? Simply as in director Thomas Kail’s sexier, juicier Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd” with Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, the emphasis is on a regular-seeming barber who’s had it as much as right here — oh and by the best way, begins slitting his buyer’s throats. The form of man about whom shocked neighbors say after his arrest, “He stored to himself.”

Nicely, it’s a take, I assume. Signature’s significantly tepid outcomes are disappointing as a result of director Lapine — the niece of frequent Sondheim artistic associate James Lapine — has displayed nice instincts with the canon earlier than, significantly Broadway’s 2017 “Sunday within the Park With George,” with Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal. (“Sweeney Todd” was the primary Sondheim present Signature ever did, in 1991, and produced it once more in 2010.) Maybe the intimacy of Signature’s 270-seat primary stage, the Max, made the corporate just a little squeamish about “Sweeney’s” graphic nature: The murders listed here are dramatized halfheartedly, by Stampley pulling bits of string or sparkly cloth out of the victims’ necks.

The tasteless idea — extending to designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s assortment of wierd and cumbersome set items — is very disconcerting, in view of some stronger contributions. Probably the most rewarding are these by Bryonha Marie, as an embracingly amoral Mrs. Lovett, and Katie Mariko Murray, giving consummate comedian allure to Sweeney’s daughter, Joanna.

The voices are all as much as the rating’s calls for, as is the 15-member orchestra beneath Jon Kalbfleisch’s baton. And Rayanne Gonzales because the Beggar Girl, Christopher Michael Richardson because the slimy Beadle, Harrison Smith as man-child Tobias and Paul Scanlan as Joanna’s rescuer, Anthony, all deliver a passionate dedication to their roles.

Marie’s Mrs. Lovett is a voluptuously joyful creation. The actress’s relish for the character’s sociopathic inclinations provides a helium to the proceedings that in any other case feels undersupplied. Costume designer Robert Perdziola does his half in illustrating Mrs. Lovett’s dizzily misguided seize for respectability: Her delightfully loopy outfit in Act 2 — after her meat pies match for a cannibal show a sensation — seems to be like one thing a Trapp Household singer may select whereas drunk procuring.

“The Worst Pies in London,” the syncopated culinary music that introduces Mrs. Lovett in Act 1, and “By the Sea,” her certifiable Act 2 ballad of corrupted connubial bliss, are applause-meter excessive factors of the night. Marie and the character are aligned in a demented, carpe diem form of approach. As Joanna, Murray gives a heavenly supply of “Inexperienced Finch and Linnet Chicken” and “Kiss Me,” the latter a duet, and finally a quartet. They stamp her as soon as once more as a divine Sondheim soprano. She confirmed herself equally achieved as Cinderella in Signature’s latest “Into the Woods.”

At different occasions, although, directorial selections severely bathroom the manufacturing down. “Johanna,” the unsettlingly lascivious aria for covetous Choose Turpin, is usually minimize from the present. It’s included (bravely) right here, however John Leslie Wolfe’s Turpin appears perplexedly stranded middle stage, groping for a approach to contextualize the decide’s self-loathing. “God, ship me!” he sings, however is that this penitential or maniacal?

Extra harmfully, “A Little Priest,” an Act 1 finale for the ages, loses its approach within the fussy staging. Slightly than go away Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett to their very own giddy units, enjoying a priceless phrase recreation concerning the individuals they’ll bake into their pies, Lapine and choreographer Alison Solomon add a cadre of ensemble members to the scene: They drag on physique baggage and affix them to hooks. The enterprise is meant to place flesh, if you’ll, on victims but to be cooked. In observe, nonetheless, all it does is step on Sondheim’s sensible puns.

Tinkering with an ideal musical must be tried with excessive warning, as Signature’s spotty efforts illustrate. It’s inside one’s rights to attempt to stroll an viewers in novel instructions with this present. However on eggshells isn’t one in all them.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Road, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, guide by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Set, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Eric Norris; music course, Jon Kalbfleisch; choreography, Alison Solomon. With Ian McEuen, Lawrence Redmond, Adelina Mitchell, Chani Wereley. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Via July 9 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.

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