ASHLAND — “Sweeney Todd” is often a gruesomely gory story to watch, but it’s impossible not to admire the acting, imagery, singing, sets, choreography and overall production.
The play, which runs through Nov. 10 at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, is the macabre tale of a 19th Century London barber who was unjustly jailed on trumped up charges by the lecherous Judge Turpin, who wanted to pursue Todd’s beautiful young wife. When released from prison many years later, Todd is told she took her own life. Adding to his hatred, he learns their daughter, Johanna, was taken into the custody of the overly obsessively protective judge, who, disgustingly, reveals that wants to marry her. All the elements cause the bitterly seething, revenge seeking Todd to spiral out of a control. Using his sharpened barber’s razor he slits the throats of people.
The first full Stephen Sondheim musical to play at the Cabaret, “Sweeney Todd” was an immediate hit when first performed on Broadway in 1979 and later as a movie starring Johnny Depp. Taking on the lead roles are Galloway Stevens as Sweeney and Valerie Rachelle as Mrs. Lovett. Both give convincing performances, especially Stevens, who totally submerses himself into Todd’s warped persona.
On his return to his London Fleet Street neighborhood, Todd is recognized by Mrs. Lovett, a lonely widow who owns a failing pie shop and, infatuated with Todd, agrees to hide his true identity. Ironically, her lagging business comes alive when pieces of those butchered by Todd add flavor to her “meat” pies that proves sensationally appetizing to eat ‘em up Londoners.
The play is propelled by more than 20 Sondheim songs, including “Johanna,” “A Little Priest,” “City on Fire,” Pirelli’s Miracle Cure,” “Not While I’m Around” and “The Worst Pies in London.”
Stevens and Rachelle, the Cabaret’s artistic director, provide the voices for many of the musical’s best songs — Stevens with “The Barber and His Wife,” Rachelle with “Worst Pies in London.” Deadly funny is “A Little Priest,” a duo featuring Rachelle and Stevens, while their “By the Sea” is enlivened by their hilarious physical comic performances.
But the singing, and acting is well supplemented by an exceptional supporting cast, notably the wildly comical “The Contest” featuring Michael Spencer. Nathan Monks and Todd Nielsen combine for a jolly “Ladies in their Sensibilities” and join Jonathan Hoover and Molly Dobbs for “Kiss Me.” Kristen Calvin, who’s a hoot as the more-than-meets-the-eye beggar woman, joins others for several songs but shines with a solo rendering of the “Beggar Woman’s Lullaby.”
Director Michael Jenkinson has created a fast paced, well acted, often dazzling musical that is visually impressive. But be aware that “Sweeney Todd” contains graphic scenes of violence and murder that made some audience members queasy and uncomfortable at its opening performance. This no lighthearted, feel-good comedy but, instead, is the tale of a man consumed with hatred who exacts his revenge.
“Sweeney Todd,” literally and figuratively, is a bloody good production.