Daring indeed is the dinner theater that serves up a musical about a deranged barber who slashes throats with a razor blade so that his victims can be baked into hot meat pies. Toby's should get points on self- confidence alone for its production of "Sweeney Todd."
With Stephen Sondheim's tensile music and steely lyrics, and Hugh Wheeler's well- tempered libretto, the show was on Broadway's cutting edge when it opened in 1979. Part revenge play, part romance and part comic Grand Guignol, it's an alloy to make the hardest demands on a troupe of actor- singers.
This production directed by Toby Orenstein is handling some of the demands deftly, while sidestepping others. Sharp for the most part musically, it's too often ragged theatrically. But the strengths outweigh the weaknesses for a generally satisfying show.
The story is based on a popular melodrama of 19th-century London. Pint for pint, the tale's grotesque bloodiness matches Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus," while Sondheim has squeezed it for every ounce of squeamish laughter possible. Try chewing on the following tuneful exchange:
"Here's a politician, so oily it's served on a doily. Have one!"
"Put it in a bun. Never know when it's going to run."
Jean Anne Kain is the best thing in the show. As Sweeney's consort, the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett, she's demonic zest personified -- a constant delight. She first appears battering a defenseless piece of dough with a rolling pin while singing "The Worst Pies in London" in a cockney croak; from the start she's the performer who helps matters most: a wicked witch with carnivorous joie de vivreka2>.
John Kaczynski manages endearing innocence as the cockney lad, Tobias, who croons a love song to Mrs. Lovett before discovering the enormity of her crimes.
John Stevenson, who sang the title role in the performance I saw (he switches off as the mad barber with Michael Tilford), is a prime example of what's right and wrong with this production. He bends his supple baritone with clarity and feeling; but his acting's as dull and stiff as posterboard -- often, just as blank.
He just isn't capturing the character in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," the musical's memorable signature tune. It describes a man half-crazed by vengeance, "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" who seethes with secret intrigues: "His skin was pale, his eye was odd . . . He seldom laughed, but he often smiled." Even when slapping his blade on a shaving strop, Stevenson's face is frozen in an undistinguished snarl.
Many of the principals fall similarly short, with Gary Best's sailor managing all the appeal of rewarmed milk; Sweeney's golden-locked daughter Johanna, poutily played by Gay Willis, coming on like Bimbo of the Month, and David Shroeder's evil judge just wimping along.
But the ensemble singing, aided by expert instrumental accompaniment, is powerful, and the special effects are convincing. The production has come up with a novel way -- via a hammock held by chain to a ceiling track -- of dispatching hapless victims.
SWEENEY TODD -- At Toby's Dinner Theater in Columbia, Maryland, through October 25.