"Sweeney Todd"

Through Oct. 31

Signature Theatre

Tickets: 703/218-6500

They call it the body drop call, and that's exactly what it is. Half an hour before the curtain rises on Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical "Sweeney Todd," four actors meet onstage with Norm Lewis, who plays the murderous barber of the title, and production stage manager Ronnie Gunderson to practice their rather unconventional exits.

And what a way to go -- all of the actors (Dana Krueger, Lawrence Redmond, R. Scott Thompson, above with Lewis, and Timothy C. Tourbin) have their throats slit by Todd, who then dumps them out of his barber's chair and through a trap door that leads to the cellar of his landlady and partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett (Donna Migliaccio).

It all looks easy and automatic -- slice, slide and out they shoot through the cellar door, ready to be made into mincemeat by the enterprising Lovett. But the routine is in effect an intricate ballet of timing and control.

The pre-show run-through is "to remind the actors' bodies what they need to do to safely go down the chute," Gunderson says. Most importantly, she says, "they have to be relaxed."

Sliding off the chair when Lewis releases the seat (and he has to do that perfectly so the "victims" hit the chute right) is only the beginning. After they slip down the slide and are beneath the raised platform, the actors are helped by stagehands to scrunch up -- carefully keeping their heads tucked so they don't whack into the beams -- and crawl onto a wheeled wagon that will carry them back into view as cold stiffs.

"It's very fast," says Krueger of the downhill journey. "You have to rely on the kindness of strangers and on the fact that Norm Lewis, bless his heart, is going to get it right."

Krueger has been nursing a bruised arm from the descent, but she says she's suffered no other ill effects. The trick, she says, is keeping cool. In other words, playing dead.

"It's not scary, but it's sobering," Krueger says. "You can't do it with elan."