Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Ray of Light Theatre usually arises once or twice a year with a major production of a musical - though its choices of material are as unpredictable as the summer sun in San Francisco. The Full Monty and Jerry Springer: The Opera are among its previous offerings - a span of brashly Broadway to eccentrically British - and now it has undertaken the challenges of what is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork. The results are a commendable if a somewhat theatrically dry rendering of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Sweeney Todd started off as a huge show in director Hal Prince’s 1979 original Broadway staging, and then was transformed into a stripped-bare version in John Doyle’s 2005 Broadway revival. Both worked exquisitely, revealing considerable leeway in the scale and physical resources required to reveal the dramatic heart of material that wends its way through a darky humorous, chillingly ominous story told mainly through Sondheim’s challenging music and dense lyrics.
The challenge of the score is well met by the Ray of Light cast, with musical direction by Robbie Cowan and with Sean Forte leading a four-piece ensemble from an onstage piano. It is in Sondheim’s lyrics where so much of the genius of the musical lays, and the performers have command of the often rapid-fire, tongue-twisting words, but they can get lost either from the acoustics of the Eureka Theatre or the variable talents of projection among the cast.
One performer for whom this is not a problem is Adam S. Campbell in the title role of the vengeful barber. He offers an imposing stage presence and a powerfully clear voice in his angry arias. Should Ray of Light ever decide to take on Les Miserables, Campbell is a Jean Valjean at the ready.
In the story created by librettist Hugh Wheeler, adapted from a famous 19th-century penny-dreadful tale, Sweeney Todd has returned to a sooty, industrialized London after 15 years of imprisonment on false charges trumped up by a judge who coveted his wife. He hopes to find his wife and their daughter, but he is obsessed with exacting revenge on the corrupt Judge Turpin. In a macabre twist, as he practices his throat-slashing technique until he can get the judge into his barber’s chair, he allies with his landlady, who disposes of the bodies by grinding them into filling for her increasingly popular meat pies.
As Mrs. Lovett, Miss Sheldra has good comic instincts as the lovable if criminally insane purveyor of meat pies, though her character’s lyrics are among those most lost in the aforementioned acoustical problems. Mrs. Lovett has found an unwitting accomplice in her young, slow-witted assistant Tobias, whom Kevin Singer presents in clear, broad strokes.
There is a concurrent story of young love between Todd’s daughter Johanna, now a young woman kept virtual prisoner by Judge Turpin, and the young sailor Anthony Hope, who had befriended Todd at sea. Matthew Provencal and Jessica Smith are fine as the young couple, as are Ken Brill as the lecherous judge, J. Conrad Frank who creates an unusually foppish Beadle, and Michelle Jasso as a beggar woman who becomes a key player in the interlocking stories.
Director Ben Randle’s work is competent, but the production does not create a particularly ominous aura that is so vital. There are also staging problems imposed by Maya Linke’s set, which misses in its admirable attempt at creating an industrial maze. This is a Sweeney Todd not so much as Grand Guignol as so-so Guignol.
Sweeney Todd will run at the Eureka Theatre through Aug. 11. Tickets are $30-$36. Go to www.rayoflighttheatre.com.