Just in time for Halloween, 5th Avenue Theatre serves up a hilariously macabre, slash-and-sing musical comedy. Yes, it's definitely comedic and entertaining. But it's also a morbid, bloodthirsty tale of horror.
Widely considered composer Stephen Sondheim's musical masterpiece, "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a show theatergoers either love or loathe. This little barbershop of horrors may not suit everyone's taste - too gruesome for the "Oklahoma!" and "Sound of Music" set, too much operatic singing for Stephen King fanatics. But if you like the films "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street," just imagine Jason and Freddy singing.
One thing is sure: For "Sweeney Todd" to succeed, you need talented singers, which you get in 5th Avenue's production, directed with flair by David Armstrong. Still, these actors must hurdle the same challenge faced by every performer who tackles this Sondheim classic. Because of the music's complexity and rapid-fire, tongue-twisting lyrics, it's difficult to understand all of the words, especially during the big chorus numbers. And that's the case at 5th Avenue. Otherwise, the production provides a terrific and terrifying evening of theater with a superb cast and glorious orchestra.
Set in Victorian London during the Industrial Revolution, this bone-chilling 1979 Tony-winning musical thriller takes us back to a time when injustice ruled and the rights of men were left to philosophers. It's the tale of a half-mad barber who returns to London after 15 years in an Australian penal colony. There's only one thing on his mind: revenge against the corrupt judge who framed him, raped his wife, stole his daughter and destroyed his life. When Todd hooks up with the dazzlingly fiendish Mrs. Lovett, a struggling baker of meat pies, they cook up a hilarious and horrifying scheme.
Allen Fitzpatrick gives a riveting performance as the demon barber Sweeney Todd, one of musical theater's most inspired roles. With his expressive and brooding baritone raging at full force, Fitzpatrick delivers his descent into serial-killer madness with thrilling passion and power. He croons to his razors as friends, rhapsodizes over "Pretty Women," then brandishes his blades with a vengeance, giving his customers the closest shave they'll ever get - and their last. And once Sweeney starts slitting, he doesn't know when to stop. He sings, slit a few throats and sings some more.
It may seem ironic to use the word "delicious" in the same sentence with the crafty Mrs. Lovett, but her role is the meatiest in the production. And Carol Swarbrick's performance absolutely delights in a dark and demented way. "Isn't that just disgusting?" she asks, singing about her baked goods in "The Worst Pies in London," as she pummels the dough, stomping the bugs while clouds of flour swirl around her. With red horns of hair done up like a psycho Raggedy Anne, the enterprising Mrs. Lovett - pronounced "Love-it" - comes up with a bright idea; she claims to be full of them. Given the shortage of cats in the neighborhood, and since one pussy only feeds six or seven ... and as long as Sweeney's killing anyway, why not recycle the dead men into pies? Seems an awful waste just to throw the corpse away, with "the price of meat what it is."
Which brings us to Act One's finale and the most hysterical number in the show. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's duet, "A Little Priest," delivers a wickedly hilarious ode to cannibalism, as these two psychotics playfully describe Mrs. Lovett's future menu.
Other subplots are woven into the revenge plotline, including a love story between Joanna, Todd's long-lost daughter, who is virtually kept a prisoner by the lascivious and perverted Judge Turpin, and Anthony, a sailor suitor besotted by her charms. Ivan Hernandez's rich, resonant voice endows Anthony with the perfect note of romantic ardor. As Johanna, Sarah Anne Lewis has a beautiful soprano voice, but with her blond wig she resembles a cross between Goldilocks and Bette Davis' character in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" You almost expect the late Davis to leap out and sing "I've Written a Letter to Daddy."
Sal Mistretta makes an amusing turn as the fey charlatan Signor Adolfo Pirelli, a flamboyant and operatic barber and Sweeney's rival, while Leslie Law offers a bawdy and heartwrenching portrait of the mysterious beggar woman who's never far from Joanna.
As the Beadle, the judge's wannabe sidekick, Roland Rusinek's glorious high tenor rings out with sheer perfection. And Julian Patrick's wonderful bass lends stature to the nasty judiciary. But by eliminating the show's original S&M self-flagellation scene from the production, 5th Avenue Theatre undermines the judge's perfidious and lecherous nature.
Benjamin Schrader, the naïve orphan Tobias, tenderly sings the musical's most poignant song, "Not While I'm Around," to Mrs. Lovett, the only person ever to show him kindness. Tragically, Tobias will soon become what he most hates and fears.
The centerpiece of Eugene Lee's gritty set design, Mrs. Lovett's pie palace inhabits the space below Sweeney's bloody barbershop. Her human-size grinder and oven looms ominously to the right, while pipe structures are wheeled about to build bridges and staircases. One marvelous prop, Sweeney's new barber chair, complete with a trapdoor seat, shoots his victims directly into Mrs. Lovett's kitchen lair. The only set color belongs to the red flowers on Joanna's balcony. Franne Lee's costumes ape Dickens' haute couture, drab and dreary; this is not the fashionable part of London. But in Act Two, Mrs. Lovett dons a garish red gown with brassy gold fringe to flaunt her booming business.
The blood splatters - we could use a bit more - and the body count rises as Sondheim's brilliant score soars to its gruesome and powerful finale. Granted, "Sweeney Todd" could turn an audience vegetarian. But it seems perfect fodder for Halloween season. Or a barber convention. Or a serial killers' annual meeting. And on opening night, two local shrinks aptly compared the morbid subject matter to overtime at the office.
Starla Smith is a Queen Anne resident. Before moving to Seattle from New York, Smith was a Broadway journalist and Tony voter.[[In-content Ad]]