By Jim Lowe
How many musical comedies find humor in insane revenge, multiple murders, and cannibalism? Perhaps only one.
Main Street Arts opened a spectacular production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” last week at the Bellows Falls Opera House. Although there were plenty of opening night glitches — there were no previews, and this is a big show — this Saxtons River community theater performance was charismatic and great fun.
If a bit gruesome.
The 1979 multiple Tony-winning Broadway musical, with music by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is a brilliant horror-musical-comedy as much for its tale of Sondheim’s music. Based on a character popularized in Victorian serialized fiction, known as “penny dreadfuls,” the story seems straight out of Edgar Alan Poe.
After escaping penal servitude, the barber Sweeney Todd returns to London. He is looking for Judge Turpin, who sentenced the barber to life so he could have his young and beautiful wife. Sweeney’s new landlady Mrs. Lovett, who sells inedible meat pies, tells him that his wife is dead and the judge has custody of Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna.
When competing barber Pirelli recognizes Sweeney as the escaped convict, he must be killed. But what to do with the body? Mrs. Lovett has an idea, and soon the meat pies are tasting great and selling faster than she can make them — at the same time the neighborhood’s undesirables are disappearing.
Meanwhile, Sweeney is hoping to save Johanna from the evil judge, who intends to marry his ward. Sweeney and the judge have competition from the young sailor, Anthony, who is in love with Johanna, and she with him. Let the carnage begin!
The Main Street Arts production, directed by artistic director David Stern, is big, lavish and imaginative. The (unattributed) set is spectacular, morphing into various locales with the all-important chute from the barbershop. That and splendid period costumes by Sandy Klein were dramatically lit by Ira Wilner. Shoshana Bass, of Putney’s Sandglass Theater, was responsible for the colorful choreography — managing a cast of 30-plus on a small stage.
Mike Wright felt authentic as the troubled Sweeney and sang well to boot. Aidan Flower and Jonathan Reid were ideal as the love interest, Johanna and Anthony, showcasing their youthful voices and demeanors. Liam Johnson gave a brilliant performance, theatrically and vocally, as Tobias Ragg, the pie shop’s naïve and unsuspecting waiter. And Steven Griffiths proved a particularly fine singer as Beadle Bamford, the judge’s sidekick.
In a charming touch, two fine dancers, Bass and Elsie Flemming, played the barber’s blades, extracting blood from the victims. As with most community theater, the level of performance varied, but there were no failures. The choruses were enthusiastic and convincing.
At Thursday’s performance, the sound system didn’t quite work until after intermission. That included the keyboard in the excellent pit band, led by music director Ken Olsson, often overpowering the singers. After intermission, all had been remedied.
Main Street Arts’ “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is big, spectacular and macabre fun.
Bellows Falls Opera House
Main Street Arts presents “Sweeney Todd,” the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical thriller, at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, March 16-18 and 23-25, at the Bellows Falls Opera House, 7 the Square in Bellows Falls. Ticket prices vary; call 869-2960, or go online to www.mainstreetarts.org.