- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

Washington theatergoers may be asking themselves: "Sweeney Todd" again? Didn't we see that Stephen Sondheim work, like, five minutes ago at Signature Theatre in Arlington?

Yes, you no doubt caught the mighty Signature production, or watched during pledge week on PBS, when the concert version is repeated ad infinitum.

But you haven't seen "Sweeney" until you've seen this "Sweeney."

The kickoff to the summerlong Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, this bold, thrilling and impeccably sung and acted "Sweeney Todd" makes you feel as though you are seeing the dark musical for the first time. This is no mean feat, when it involves someone who has seen "Sweeney" at least 10 times.

"Sweeney," which premiered in 1979, is not your father's musical. The show, which is deep, rich and both taboo and funny in a macabre fashion, revolves around a barber, Sweeney Todd (Brian Stokes Mitchell), who returns to London after escaping from prison in Australia. He has a score to settle: The craven Judge Turpin (Walter Charles) sent Sweeney to prison on a trumped-up charge and then raped his wife in a weird scene that reminds you, unfortunately, of the orgy in "Eyes Wide Shut." Sweeney seeks revenge on the judge and his henchman, the Beadle (Ray Friedeck), and also wants to discover the whereabouts of his now-grown daughter, Johanna (Celia Keenan-Bolger).

Sweeney's weapons of choice are his cold, sharp razors. He even sings a murky love ballad to them, "My Friends," when reunited with the deadly blades. He feels whole only with a razor in his hand. This does not escape the fiendishly practical Mrs. Lovett (Christine Baranski), who uses his demonic bent to rehabilitate her reputation as the maker of the worst meat pies in London. Sweeney slices his victims amd Mrs. Lovett dices 'em into her pastries, which become the cannibalistic toast of London.

Director Christopher Ashley doesn't refashion Mr. Sondheim's masterwork as much as he reinvigorates it. Derek McLane's set evokes the sooty grit of industrial London much in the same way the original Broadway set did. Mr. McLane's 19th-century London is a sewerlike maze of pipes, grid work and steam. This grimy feeling is carried through with David C. Woolard's shabby, raggy costumes and the dirty, almost expressionistic light by Howell Binkley.

The production astonishes because it is just so clean, except for some microphone glitches the terrific chorus is either bellowing or inaudible when it is stage left and awkward set changes. Odd, for a musical about slimy people and serial killings to be so pristine, but there you have it.

The impeccable quality of Mr. Ashley's "Sweeney" prevails because it involves so little tinkering. The pairing of Mr. Mitchell as Sweeney and Miss Baranski as his meat-pie-making partner in crime is delectable. Although the two may not entirely banish the specters of the roles' originators, Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, they give you strong, new memories to savor.

Mr. Mitchell captures the obsessive menace of Sweeney, but he also imbues him with a grim allure. Women sometimes like bad boys, and Sweeney may be the baddest of them all he is clearly an attraction for Mrs. Lovett.

Mr. Mitchell's sublime baritone and bearing are as thunderous as those of an angry god. Miss Baranski's Mrs. Lovett is more of a perky, purring nutter. Miss Baranski is an ideal Sondheim singer. Her diction and timing are perfectly suited for the tongue-twisty lyrics and rapid stylistic changes. In this show they range from waltzes and lullabies, to traditional Broadway sock-it-to-ems, to period ditties. Although it may be notoriously hard to sing and act in a Sondheim show, Miss Baranski makes it look as easy as, well, pie.

Her daffiness and flirtatiousness in such numbers as "The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest" and "By the Sea" are a sunny contrast to Mr. Mitchell's unrelenting darkness. In vastly different ways, the two have the audience in the palms of their hands from the very first note.

The other roles also are beautifully cast. The lovely baritone of Mr. Charles (the venal Judge) melts into Mr. Mitchell's as they sing the deadly duet, "Pretty Women." The Judge's sidekick, the Beadle, is performed by Mr. Friedeck with a combination of silken menace and a choirboy's voice.

Hugh Panaro plays the good sailor who captures Johanna's heart. When his powerful tenor wraps around the soaring "Johanna," he gives you the shivers. Miss Keenan-Bolger as the innocent Johanna adds sweetness and light to "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and "Kiss Me."

Another outstanding performance, both daft and tragic, is given by Mark Price as Tobias, the young boy Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing. There is a touch of mad poet in Mary Beth Peil as the Beggar Woman always on the periphery of the action.

This thrilling production of "Sweeney Todd" should not warrant a response of "Oh, no, not again" but again, and again and again.


****

WHAT: "Sweeney Todd"

WHEN: Running in repertory with "Company" and "Sunday in the Park With George"/Through June 30

WHERE: The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: Sold out; tickets are available for other productions in the Sondheim Celebration

PHONE: 202/467-4600 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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