Stephen Sondheim’s musical stylings in “Sweeney Todd” are a stark contrast to his lyrics in the beloved “West Side Story” and comedic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
From the first blow of a whistle in Lake City Playhouse’s production, “Sweeney Todd” is piercing. Set in Victorian London, it is marked by a smoky-gray backdrop, pathetic characters, and music that surprises with its complexity, sometimes jarring notes and even humor.
The musical’s storyline, with book by Hugh Wheeler, is compelling. Based on a play by Christopher Bond, which is based on an earlier work, it’s full of multifaceted characters and satisfying plot twists, all leading to a thrilling, yet tragic, end.
The show is closer to opera than a feel-good romp like “Forum.” The music is a challenge for the 25-person cast, but they are up to the task for the most part. Director George Green has assembled a strong group of singers.
As Sweeney Todd, a barber who has returned home after 15 years in prison to avenge those who ruined his life, Daniel J. Bell’s height and strong baritone make for an imposing presence. He is a bit too detached and stiff at times, but his anger shows through, and the audience recoils during one scene when he steps into the aisle looking for a throat to cut.
Sweeney’s “Pretty Women” duet with his enemy Judge Turpin, played by Kent Kimball, is one of the show’s highlights.
Abbey Crawford embodies the baker, Mrs. Lovett, adeptly. Lovett, out of greed and love for the barber, schemes to hide Sweeney’s murder victims in her meat pies. Crawford plays Lovett genuinely rather than as a caricature – especially in “Not While I’m Around” – so her final betrayal is a surprise.
Young lovers Anthony (Brendan Brady) and Johanna (Caitlin Duffey), with their fair hair and voices, are the only lights in this dark story. Their fast-paced “Kiss Me” duet is well-done, and Brady’s “Johanna” is sweet and touching.
Evan Figuracion, as Tobias, stands out. Tobias is an innocent young boy caught in poverty and Lovett’s web. Figuracion seems to understand the depth of his character, and he has a strong voice and great presence.
Lanz Babbitt is entertaining as the huckster Adolpho Pierelli, while Micah Lynn is creepy and a little funny as the beggar woman.
The ensemble blends well and serves as the “vermin” of society, as Sweeney calls them. Their collective voice becomes shrill at times, but this may be due to Sondheim’s off-kilter compositions.
With “Sweeney,” Sondheim shows how his wordplay helps reinforce his unique talent in theater. During “God, That’s Good,” Lovett’s customers sing about her pies: “de – have you – licious – ever tasted smell such – Oh my God – what more that’s pies good.” His lyrics often are filled with juxtaposition and irony.
The Lake City production features music direction by Carolyn Jess, set design by Green, scenic artistry by Jamie Marble and costumes by Jamie Russell.