Signature’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ commits a cardinal sin: It’s bloodless


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

The second is unalloyed insanity. “I’m alive at last, and I’m full of joy!” he sings, lingering on the final phrase of Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous lyric. But Nathaniel Stampley, the Sweeney Todd of Signature Theatre’s listless revival, just isn’t a dispenser of chills — he’s merely chilly. The fireplace within the stomach of Mrs. Lovett’s macabre oven doesn’t prolong to his. We’re left to ponder a character who appears to have time on his palms, slightly 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. But should 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 will never be another Stephen Sondheim

Have administrators determined that an viewers in 2023 can’t abide the skin-crawling machinations which are the grotesque coronary heart of the present? Do we’ve to search out Sweeney … relatable? Just 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 type of man about whom shocked neighbors say after his arrest, “He kept to himself.”

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

The bland idea — extending to designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s assortment of strange and cumbersome set items — is particularly disconcerting, in view of some stronger contributions. The most rewarding are these by Bryonha Marie, as an embracingly amoral Mrs. Lovett, and Katie Mariko Murray, giving consummate comedian attraction 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 Woman, Christopher Michael Richardson because the slimy Beadle, Harrison Smith as man-child Tobias and Paul Scanlan as Joanna’s rescuer, Anthony, all carry 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 — appears like one thing a Trapp Family singer may select whereas drunk purchasing.

“The Worst Pies in London,” the syncopated culinary tune 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 type of manner. As Joanna, Murray presents a heavenly supply of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and “Kiss Me,” the latter a duet, and in the end 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 current “Into the Woods.”

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

More harmfully, “A Little Priest,” an Act 1 finale for the ages, loses its manner within the fussy staging. Rather than depart Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett to their very own giddy gadgets, taking part in 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, nevertheless, all it does is step on Sondheim’s good puns.

Tinkering with a excellent 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. But on eggshells isn’t one in every of them.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, e book 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. Through July 9 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.



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