For those who like to take dark excursions in entertainment this time of year, the only thing more giddily horrific than Actors’ Repertory Theatre Ensemble’s production of “Sweeney Todd” would be a visit to hell itself.
Director Loraine Edwards, musical director Marcie Jacobsen and lighting designer Marianne Ohran have blended their separate fields of expertise into one dark and atmospheric show. The acting is vivid, the singing is fantastic, and the natural darkness of the outdoor theater is used to great advantage in the way lights and shadows creep across the stage.
This is a “concert version” of the show, which means the sets are minimal and the actors perform in front of microphones rather than moving around and interacting physically with one another. If this makes it sound like less of a show, think again. Stephen Sondheim’s pitch-black score and Hugh Wheeler’s grimly funny book could stand on their own, but this production doesn’t let them. There are costumes to enhance the flavor, yes, but more than that, there is tremendous, furious energy pouring out of every nook and cranny of the show.
At the center of the firestorm is David Barrus as Sweeney Todd, the embittered man who takes revenge on his native London by slitting the throats of his barbershop customers. Barrus glares menacingly through cold, penetrating eyes, the hint of a sneer lurking around his mouth, his mind obviously turning and twisting with calculated, focused evil. And then we hear him sing: a beautiful, highly trained voice uttering words of ferocious intensity, at times descending into a malevolent growl. Maybe it was the chilly weather, but I had goosebumps. I haven’t loved a performance this year as much as I loved David Barrus’ Sweeney Todd.
Mrs. Lovett is Sweeney’s conspirator, baking his victims into meat pies. (Let us remind you, this show is not for the faint of heart.) Playing Mrs. Lovett with all the fabulousness she possesses — and the level of her fabulousness is considerable — is Marcie Jacobsen. Her best number with Barrus is the hilarious and macabre “A Little Priest,” in which the machinating entrepreneurs discuss the various sorts of men who might wind up as pastries. The show reaches its gallows-humor zenith here before heading into all-out horror for most of the second act.
Brad Montgomery delivers a hit-and-run as Pirelli, the outrageously Italian mountebank who challenges Sweeney’s tonsorial prowess. He appears in only two scenes, earns huge laughs in both of them, sings fantastically, imprints himself on your memory, and then kazaam! He is gone.
His brother, Scott Montgomery, sweetly plays Tobias, Pirelli’s boy lackey. Wade Foster is Anthony, the dulcet-voiced suitor of Johanna, played by the lovely Kristin Crockett Montgomery. Anthony and Johanna exist in a world apart from the madness of Sweeney’s barbershop, and the actors have some very nice moments together.
Shining in smaller roles are Miriam Latour as a beggar woman, David Hanson as evil Judge Turpin, and Oliver Gaag as his cohort, Beadle Bamford.
The limited physicality of the show makes a few things unclear, most notably the fact that after Sweeney kills a man, the body is sent down a chute into the kitchen. Those unfamiliar with the show may not catch that important detail. Some of the ensemble actors had trouble with Sondheim’s difficult, dissonant melodies, too, though not to any great detriment of the show.
Should you go? For chills and giggles — not to mention great singing and acting — there’s no better choice.