Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Stephen Sondheim's magnificent 1979 musical, with Hugh Wheeler's book adapted from a play by Christopher Bond, manages to have it both ways. Audiences feel sympathy for Sweeney Todd (Benoit), a barber sent to prison in Australia on a false charge by a corrupt judge (Thomas Adrian Simpson) who then turned his predatory desires toward Todd's abandoned wife and baby daughter. The viewer understands Todd's drive toward murder as the only way to even the score. But then things get morally ambiguous and the blood spurts generously.
Benoit is a physically imposing man who plays Todd with a glowering look and a resonant voice, but he also demonstrates a tender sideduring the love song he sings to his razors. One feels that this Todd could kill his victims with his bare hands if he had to.
Butler, full-figured and swathed in Seth Gilbert's voluminous gowns, plays Mrs. Lovett with more ferocity than one might expect. From her first entrance, to her self-promotion as Todd challenges the traveling barber Pirelli (Frank Viveros), through the moment of enlightenment (a literal one, thanks to Colin K. Bills' lighting design) that leads to her outwardly respectable success, she's the engine that powers the drama in this telling. She knows what Todd is capable of and never worries that his fury might someday threaten her.
Gracie Jones and Jobari Parker-Namdar play up the comedy of the young lovers, Johanna and Anthony, too innocent to realize the depravity surrounding them. Simpson exudes faux rectitude as the judge and Patricia Hurley finds all the pathos and desperation in the Beggar Woman. The stunt casting of Rachel Zampelli as the (male) beadle just seems like a missed opportunity.
Milagros Ponce de León's multi-leveled scenic design uses several overlapping wrought-iron fences and a catwalk to suggest the danger and decay of Victorian London. The score really needs more than nine musicians to do it justice, but they do their best.
Olney Theatre Center