Theater critic

David Benoit in the title role of “Sweeney Todd” at the Olney Theatre Center. (Stan Barouh)

When the vengeful Sweeney Todd finally gets access to the throat of the corrupt judge who assaulted his wife and exiled him to an Australian prison, actor David Benoit — an amply menacing Sweeney — lets the demon barber’s brush linger. The foam is applied with a slow, tantalizing swipe; the moment drips with anticipation.

In that instant the Olney Theatre Center’s big, beautifully sung “Sweeney Todd” discovers its missing ingredient: relish.

That’s key, of course, to making this Stephen Sondheim masterwork sing — really nailing the tragic plot twists and the gallows laughs, the ravishing score and the whip-smart lyrics. The musical is a lip-smacking banquet, and while Jason Loewith’s staging at the Olney has a lot going for it, a few too many of this juicy potboiler’s most savory moments go down in a hasty gulp.

Minor adjustments could make major differences, and the ambitious production of this demanding material may already be settling in. Miniaturization is the safer trend with musicals, but Loewith goes big, raising a cinematic curtain (featuring a blood-dripping “Sweeney” logo) on an imposing Victorian set. Black iron stairways lead to a catwalk across the back of the stage, while a soaring gridwork of prisonlike bars suggests a massive societal tension between the melodrama’s captives and captors.

Sonically, too, the show aims for grandeur. Musical director Christopher Youstra’s orchestra is only nine strong, yet it suggests the original symphonic feeling with its dark woodwinds, crashing percussion and creepy muted trumpet. The robust choral voices hit an exhilarating peak at the end, massing for the final ballad.

Add grubby Victorian costumes from Seth Gilbert and lots of darkness in the Colin K. Bills lighting design, and an excellent frame is in place for this “Sweeney” to pack a muscular dramatic punch. The performance keeps grazing its targets in key areas, though, none more surprisingly than in E. Faye Butler’s turn as Sweeney’s quirky sidekick, Mrs. Lovett. Butler can be a commanding presence, and punch lines seldom elude her: The Arena Stage stalwart has repeatedly proven her gift for coaxing audiences into the palm of her hand. Yet the coyness, devilishness and laughs are slow to come during “The Worst Pies in London” and even in “A Little Priest,” with Butler and Benoit finally sharing an intoxicating sense of wicked glee only as the number crests to its finish.


David Benoit as Sweeney Todd and E. Faye Butler as Mrs. Lovett. (Stan Barouh)

Benoit is unusually human as Sweeney, not the grim cadaver that sometimes gives a machine-like quality (to borrow a Sondheim lyric) to the darkest portrayals of the haunted barber. Benoit’s Sweeney is quick to anger, though — and if some of the plot’s most wrenching revelations aren’t yet fully sinking in, Benoit certainly gives a full-bodied account of the role. His glorious voice forcefully drives the savage “Epiphany,” and he glides through “Pretty Women” and the second-act “Johanna,” smoothly crooning as Sweeney almost absent-mindedly slits throats and drops bodies to Lovett’s basement bakeshop.

The bakeshop of Milagros Ponce de Leon’s set doesn’t really work, squished down at the lip of the stage as it is. Other aspects that just miss include performances that are borderline gorgeous, save for lone distracting elements here and there – the slight over-anxiousness of Gracie Jones and Michael J. Mainwaring as Johanna and Tobias, for instance, in otherwise superbly sung turns. The same goes for Frank Viveros’s Pirelli, a flamboyant comic role that Viveros sings authoritatively but overacts by reaching for the clownish laughs, and for the healthy radiance that Patricia Hurley — Olney’s recent Mary Poppins — doesn’t seem able to hide as the old beggar woman.

These are matters of small degrees, so it’s reasonable to hope the show will jell into the kind of ease Rachel Zampelli displays as the Beadle in the show’s most interesting casting gambit. Zampelli, whose notably captivating recent work includes playing Evita at the Olney, seems entirely at home in bushy whiskers and a bowler as the judge’s henchman, and delectably milks the tension when the Beadle starts playing parlor songs as he waits for Todd in nervous Nellie Lovett’s parlor. And then there’s Benoit, a burly, edgy, golden-throated Sweeney, a formidable centerpiece for the epic show this nearly is.

“Sweeney Todd,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Jason Loewith. Choreography, Tommy Rapley; sound design, Matt Rowe. With Jobari Parker-Namdar, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Kenneth Derby, Jade Jones, Banjamin Lurye, Quynh-My Luu, Alan Naylor, Adam Strube, Janine Sunday, Joseph Torello, Melissa Victor and Laura Whittenberger. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through March 5 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Tickets $38-$80. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.