‘Sweeney Todd’ at the Signature: A delightfully gory spectacle

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‘Sweeney Todd’ at the Signature: A delightfully gory spectacle
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By Mae Hunt

Signature Theatre’s take on “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a delightfully gory spectacle. It will run through July 9 as the final installment of So Many Possibilities, Signature’s season-long tribute to the legacy of Stephen Sondheim.

Arguably the best-known of Sondheim’s musicals, “Sweeney Todd” first made its Broadway debut in 1979. It follows its titular character, a talented barber whose obsession with revenge drives him to become a serial killer, and his partner-in-crime, pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett.

While undeniably dark in subject matter, in typical Sondheim fashion, “Sweeney Todd” is humorous and heartfelt as well. Signature’s production does justice to the show’s complexities, thanks to excellent performances across the board.

Nathaniel Stampley is a phenomenal Sweeney, with the kind of baritone voice that is breathtaking and smooth, even in the character’s most depraved moments. Rather than take a more comedic approach to the role, Stampley’s version of Sweeney is genuinely terrifying. He appears controlled, but just barely, as if he could snap at any moment.

For this reason, the dynamic between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, played by Bry- onha Marie, is a joy to watch. Mrs. Lovett’s actions are just as heartless as Sweeney’s, but Marie’s charismatic and funny performance makes that an easy fact to forget – at least, until the plot forces the audience to remember. Marie’s bubbly Mrs. Lovett provides a fantastic contrast to Stampley’s stoic Sweeney, and her near flawless grasp of the Cockney accent is impressive as well.

The rest of the cast were just as great. John Leslie Wolfe gave a controlled but skin-crawling performance as the show’s villain, Judge Turpin, and the comedic timing that Christopher Michael Richardson brought to the role of Turpin’s lackey, the Beadle, made the character one of my favorites to watch in the entire production.

Aside from the performances, a definite highlight of Sweeney Todd is the production design. Upon entering the theater space, the audience is transported into a gritty version of Victorian London. Steam floats up through grates in the stage floor, and the set is sterile and angular, reminiscent of a butcher shop.

Although Sweeney Todd is a famously gory show, Director Sarna Lapine and her team decided to use red fabric and ribbons to represent bloodspill, rather than liquid fake blood. This may be disappointing to audience members who anticipated a more grisly viewing experience.

Personally, I found the murder scenes to be effectively haunting, in a symbolic sort of way that aligns with Sondheim’s trademark exploration of the human condition. Rather than distract the viewer with shock value, Signature’s production invites the viewer to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that the story intends to stir up inside them.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Based on the book by Hugh Wheeler. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Music directed by Jon Kalbfleisch. Choreography by Alison Solomon. Scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. Costume design by Robert Perdziola. Lighting design by Jesse Belsky and sound design by Eric Norris.

Overall, Signature Theatre’s take on Sweeney Todd is subdued, but seamless. With a cast and crew that truly gives it their all, it’s impossible not to have fun, even during the show’s darkest moments.

The writer, a lifelong Alexandrian, works in the fine arts industry. She is an accomplished playwright who was the former editor-in-chief and fine arts editor of the Kenyon Collegian.

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