At the close of Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s production of Sweeney Todd, the stage has been littered with more corpses than in that other famous tale of revenge, Hamlet. But composer Stephen Sondheim, in recounting the story of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” gives us not catharsis, just pure enjoyment.
Sweeney Todd started out in Victorian England as a “penny dreadful,” a serialized spooky story that kept readers biting their nails until they could get hold of the next installment. All the characters of the melodrama are still there, but oh, what Sondheim does with them!
There is villainous Judge Turpin (Joseph Dellger), who years ago seduced Sweeney Todd’s wife and now lusts after his daughter, but Sondheim lends depth through a self-flagellating aria in which he tries to beat the desire out of his flesh. There is beautiful young Johanna, who must be rescued from her lecherous guardian by the handsome young hero Anthony. Sondheim saves them from being stock characters by giving them some touching love songs, ably rendered by Dani Westhead and Eric Coles.
There is also Turpin’s henchman Beadle (Bruce Warren), who surprises us with his passion for singing. And there is the serial-killer barber, given a sympathetic portrayal by David Ludwig, and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (the deliciously malicious Christianne Tisdale), who makes good use of the repurposed corpses of the victims to supply meat for her pie shop.
Who else but Sondheim would have the gleefully murderous pair sing a can-you-top-this rhyming contest about how victims from various occupations will taste, such as “a tinker will be pinker”? Who else but Sondheim would create a duet about pretty women for Sweeney Todd, shaving razor held high, to sing with Judge Turpin, his longed-for victim, seated in the barber’s chair before him? Sondheim has us where he wants us, so he can spin out this tense moment as long as he pleases, with Judge Turpin humming a nonchalant rhythm.
The excellent diction of the entire cast, under the able direction of Igor Goldin, makes it possible for all of Sondheim’s delicious lyrics to be savored. Goldin updates the setting to post-World War II London, with members of the chorus punching a time clock as they enter Czerton Lim‘s industrial-looking, multi-level unit set. (In a lovely touch, Todd’s murdered victims punch out as they walk off the set.) Sondheim’s sophisticated score is performed by a first-rate pit band, made up largely of Symphoria members under the direction of Jeff Theiss.
Merry-Go-Round’s excellent production, playing through Sept. 5 at Auburn’s Emerson Park, does full justice to Sondheim’s wit and artistry in this musical theater gem.