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Review: Simplified ‘Sweeney Todd’ packs power

The actors all play their own instruments in the national tour of this acclaimed 2005 Broadway and London production of “Sweeney Todd” – yet that turns out to be the least important innovation in this revival.

Far more crucial are John Doyle’s other directorial touches: the stark asylum setting; the way the actors directly address the audience; and the use of red paint poured from bucket to bucket to suggest blood.

Doyle, who first conceived this production for a small English theater, has stripped away everything extraneous. The set consists only of a looming wall, a few chairs and a coffin, which stands in for everything from a pie-shop counter to a barber’s chair to a judge’s bench.

Nothing is left except Sondheim’s music and the chilling story of a vengeful barber and his creative culinary accomplice.

The result is powerful: An injection of “Sweeney Todd” directly into the vein.

Still, you can’t ignore the fact that Mrs. Lovett lugs a tuba around. Most of the characters, when not directly involved in a scene, sit to the side and provide the accompaniment onstage.

Doyle first conceived this as an economizing measure, but it turns out to have a brilliant artistic effect as well. Music-making is an expressive undertaking, and everyone stays in character all the time. So when Johanna (Wendy Muir) is upset, she saws away in anguish at her cello; when the Beggar Woman (Patty Lohr) is thwarted, she points her clarinet like a blow-gun and blasts a raucous insult.

It gives those of us in the audience more to look at. And these actors really know how to play.

The entire cast is top-tier. Merritt David Janes brings a sense of brooding, heavy-browed menace to Todd, miles away from Johnny Depp’s lighter film portrayal. Janes has a fine, powerful voice – and he’s not a bad guitar-picker either.

Carrie Cimma commands the stage as a spike-haired, tattooed, mini-skirted Mrs. Lovett. Her comic timing is well-honed, and she demonstrated great vocal control in the pensive song, “By the Sea.” Her duet with Janes in Sondheim’s most wickedly clever song, “A Little Priest,” was the evening’s high point. It’s hard not to love a song which contains the line, “And we have some shepherd’s pie, peppered with actual shepherd on top.”

The supporting roles were also uniformly strong, notably Chris Marchant as Tobias.

Doyle has conceived an effective way of showing violence without showing anything at all. Whenever Todd slashes another throat, he merely mimics the gesture. The stage erupts in lurid red lighting and an actor pours red paint into a bucket.

This production, despite its strong visual appeal, is in many ways like a concert version of the show. Everything is directed out toward the audience; even during a conversation, the actors look straight at the audience, and not at each other.

This gives the show a directness that enhances both its emotional power and its innate creepiness.

“Sweeney Todd” has long been one of my favorite musicals; this production, I predict, will be the one I remember longest.

“Sweeney Todd” ends its Spokane run tonight.