- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis daringly eliminates most of the Victorian era and music hall trappings that dominate many a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd.” She opts instead for something darker, sleeker and altogether more vampiric.

With its queasy yellow fluorescent light casting sickly shadows on the actors’ faces, the stripped-down and mobile set and the slashes of scarlet and yellow paint splashing the floors and walls of the Head Theater, Miss Lewis’ “Sweeney” has a Goth-punk edge that owes as much to The Cure as it does to Bertolt Brecht.

The emphasis on blood and sex and gnawing need puts you pleasurably in mind of novelist Anne Rice’s purplest prose.

Sondheim purists might squawk, but those with open minds are in for a show that puts over the gorgeous material in electrifying and prickly ways.

The overall level may fall short of the steamy production at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration two years ago, but it gains in sheer verve what it may lack in resources. (While the former had a full orchestra, Center Stage makes do with six musicians.)

Blood is a central theme in this staging, and it flows so freely you wonder if the first two rows should be outfitted with plastic ponchos like they do with the Shamu show at Sea World. Blood spills, splurts and drips. Even the squeamish might experience a forbidden thrill at the sight of Sweeney Todd (Joseph Mahowald) singing some of the most soaringly operatic music of our time while deftly slitting the throats of his victims.

What comes through in this show is just how much pleasure Sweeney takes in the filleting of human tissue. Sweeney, however, is not a mindless serial killer; he becomes “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” out of love for his wife, who was raped long ago by the craven Judge Turpin (Ed Dixon), a crime enacted in a creepy scene where the other partygoers, sporting baby masks, blithely keep on swigging champagne and dancing.

Sent to Australia on a trumped-up charge, Sweeney returns to London years later to find his wife believed dead and his now-grown daughter Johanna (Maria Couch) being raised by the Judge, who is operating out of obligation and lust for the young girl.

Desire wins out when the Judge, egged on by his henchman Beadle (played with twinkling malice by Wayne W. Pretlow), decides to marry Johanna. However, this being a melodrama, there is a handsome young hero on the horizon, the sailor Anthony (Aaron Ramey, possessor of a shimmery tenor voice), who strives to be united with Johanna no matter what.

Sweeney’s desire to do right by his wife and daughter is exploited by Mrs. Lovett (Nora Mae Lyng), the middle-aged proprietor of a shop serving “the worst pies in London,” whose business needs a protein boost. Learning of Sweeney’s vengeful plans, she proposes, during the felicitous ode to cannibalism, “A Little Priest,” that all that good meat should not go to waste. Their business arrangement provides the perfect cover for Sweeney’s scheme, and Mrs. Lovett doesn’t have to chase down the neighborhood cats anymore for the meat in her pies.

Mrs. Lovett is no monster either, even if she does take the entrepreneurial spirit a bit far. She is a needy human being, desperate for love. She adores Sweeney (whom Mr. Mahowald plays as a brawny dockworker type who becomes an artist with a razor in his hand) and wants him to love her back — except that he has a one-track mind.

Her thwarted affection is transferred to her helper Toby (the excellent Ron DeStefano), a street urchin who knows nothing but abuse, and the pair form a demented family unit, as expressed in the wrenchingly lovely ballad, “Not While I’m Around.” Miss Lyng may not have the minxish sexuality of Christine Baranski nor Angela Lansbury’s clowny artistry, but she is a Broadway pro, and she adeptly handles the tricky lyrics and the score’s myriad swoops and swirls. She gives us a warm and ghoulishly motherly Mrs. Lovett.

Nearly everyone in “Sweeney Todd,” even the ingenue roles of Johanna and Anthony, are damaged goods, and so they operate out of misshapen emotions. Mr. Sondheim takes these emotions to even higher and more deranged extremes, but no matter how crazed and ghastly things get in the musical, its humanity shines through.

The same goes for Miss Lewis’ take on “Sweeney Todd.” It is a brash, expressionistic approach to Sondheim, but never once do you feel the production is all concept and no heart.

***1/2

WHAT: “Sweeney Todd” by Stephen Sondheim

WHERE: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 11.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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