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Sweeney Todd at Stage Door Inc. Scores a Success With a Serial Killer as the Lead

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The set-up:

The Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened in 1979 in the Uris Theatre, the largest theater on Broadway, seating almost 2,000. It won eight Tony awards, and ran for 557 performances and 19 previews. Its originality, combined with its macabre narrative of a serial killer as the lead, startled the theater world, while its power and brilliance commanded respect and acceptance. With 79 percent of it sung, not spoken, it overlaps into opera, and has been often performed by opera companies, with the Houston Grand Opera in 1984 the first to do so. Despite the scale and international fame of this acclaimed masterpiece, Pasadena's Stage Door, Inc. has mounted it in its very intimate space.

The execution:

The story is one of revenge, as a young barber is falsely imprisoned for 15 years, so that the sentencing judge can ravish his beautiful wife. The barber returns to London, assumes the name Sweeney Todd, and seeks his daughter Joanna, but seeks even more to wreak vengeance on the judge. He joins forces with Mrs. Lovett, owner of a pastry shop with the worst meat-pies in London. Mrs. Lovett is portrayed by Heather Gabriel, who could not be better - she brings charm and chutzpah to the role, and captivates as she plays up to the younger Todd - her idea for disposing of the slain bodies leads to a stunning improvement in their fortunes.

Colton Wright, who was brilliant and unforgettable as Ash in Evil Dead at Stage Door, is young for Todd, but pulls it off with a dark goatee and some silver in the hair. One of his strengths as an actor is listening well, and this pays off beautifully in the song "By the Sea", as Mrs. Lovett spins a pipe dream of an idyllic life. Todd is meant to be bored, but nonetheless maintains an electric connection to Mrs. Lovett. Wright brings subtlety to the role, and lets us see the torment and pain of Todd, not just his anger. And he permits Todd a sense of humor, so that when Act One ends with Todd expanding his vengeance from the judge to all mankind, we see the sinister progression as a real change. Wright has succeeded in making Todd a sympathetic character - no mean feat.

Having seen three outstanding prior productions at Stage Door (Evil Dead, Rent, and Avenue Q), my expectations were high indeed, but even so I was unprepared for this production. It is elaborate in its set, imaginative and flexible in its staging, and gifted with two leads, whose chemistry etches itself into our sensibilities. Its direction, by Stage Door's artistic director, Marc Anthony Glover, smacks of genius. Glover has re-created 19th-century London, and not only invited us in, but seized us by the throat to insure our compliance.

What Glover has done is to add charm to the darkness, and has found the humor in the human condition, and has added remarkable stagecraft so we see it, too. His set is a marvel, echoing a London mews, and providing a pastry shop, the upstairs tonsorial parlor, windows for various residences for Joanna, and the bake-oven. Other seamless transformations enhance other settings, surprising and delightful. This is an elaborate set, worthy of acclaim, and generous in pleasuring the audience. I still can hardly believe all that was achieved.

The leads sing beautifully, and compellingly, with a clear comprehension of the emotions involved. There are eight other principals, all good except that Mike Ryan as the Beadle might find more authority. The 14-year old Joseph Concha plays the young Tobias, sings well, and holds the stage. (Jared Ringo shares the role) Michael Houghton as the suitor for Joanna is excellent, and appealing in his deep love. Jana Smith brings poise and blond beauty to Joanna. And Tia Case, a child in the ensemble, had me on the floor with laughter in the patio scene, because her pantomime was so dead-on.

The costumes are colorful, interesting, and often a bit unusual - here is where Glover inserts some steampunk references, and their strangeness doesn't distract much. The lighting, also by Glover, is superb, and includes platforms on both sides of the 2d row, which performers use. And not just for effect - they permit at one point a simultaneous playing of three scenes, to magnificent counterpoint.

Todd sings the song "Pretty Women" as he prepares to do in the judge, and the ironic mixture of aesthetic appreciation and mayhem is powerful and haunting - and I can't get the tune out of my mind. The wit and humor of "A Little Priest" is cerebral and jaunty and joyous, and humanizes both Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Curiously, and amazingly, here they become lovable scamps - yes, Sondheim is a genius.

Is it an opera? I believe it is, not because it is largely sung, but because the ending pulls together so many themes, and is so rich in raw emotional power, that it soars toward the heavens, bringing us with it. This production understands Sondheim's true vision, not simply the darkness of the human soul but also the warmth and needs of our tattered hearts. I felt privileged to be part of its audience. I wish Sondheim could see this production. The verdict:

A brilliant production finds the heart in this tale of a serial killer, and fuses the powerful music with superb, outstanding performances by the leads, and with remarkably inventive staging, creating the magic that theater at its best can be.

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through July 28, from Stage Door, Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, Pasadena. For information or ticketing, call 832-582-7606 or contact www.stagedoorinc.com.

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