SWEENEY TODD -- In the Kennedy Center Opera House through November 29.
It's enough to drain the blood from Dracula's face. An upstart rival in the antique horror business, a mere razor-wielding barber, has achieved what eluded Dracula through all his recent triumphs on stage and screen -- high artistic respectability.
"Sweeney Todd," in its current manifestation now playing the Kennedy Center's Opera House, has been compared with "The Threepenny Opera" and on up -- to grand opera. It picked New York clean of prizes.
This is quite an achievement for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, whose previous incarnations were in the Victorian newssheets known as penny dreadfuls and theaters characterized as "bloodbath." And he managed the transformation without having to reform his basic character of Senseless Killer.
The old boy needed some powerful allies to pull this one off. Stephen Sondheim wrote the score to turn the story into a musical, Angela Lansbury and George Hearn star in it, and Harold Prince directed it. Each one has that masterly touch. But has all that audacious cleverness been used to perpetuate a fraud? Are they distracting the crowds with their fantastic tricks so nobody will notice that something is missing?
The legendary Sweeney Todd, who slit throats in his barber chair for fun and the profit to be had when his victims were turned into meatpies, was at least innocent of political or psychological motivation. But when he appears in Brechtian disguise, he deliberately creates a false impression. It is not that a musical should be expected to be based on an actual idea, or that an opera should, either. But the presence of the evil rich among the well-choreographed poor, the bizarre charm of Lansbury and wild authority of Hearn, the impassioned Sondheim score, the dopiness of the goody-goody lovers -- all this suggests the cynical commentaries on character and class that Brecht also provided.
But "Sweeney Todd" is just a horror story. Although the killer is supposed to be pursuing revenge, he soon discovers the joy of killing strangers. The comedy -- and Lansbury has brought the dear-old-grisly-lady role to perfection -- is not allowed to temper the horror by providing a modern perspective on old-fashioned melodrama. As in cheap horror films, there's lots of spurting blood -- to the point where the shock value is gone and there's only whatever thrill value has made goriness so popular for so long.
People who don't like the horror genre are not going to be amused. But they'll still have to admire the achievement that Sweeney has pulled off by moving with the swells.