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Murder and Mayhem With a Dash of British Humor Sweeney Todd – The Demon of Fleet Street At The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
July 30, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Photographer Shane Canfield

Photographer Shane Canfield

It’s Olympics Week and we’re in London.  Well, not really Dearie, not the London of the Tower Bridge and the colored rings, but a smidge more local, at The Little Theatre of Alexandria far closer to the Potomac than the Thames.  No, my friends, this is the London of Sweeney Todd, “who would blink and rats would scuttle” as he “served a dark and vengeful god.”  Close enough, I’d say.  Maybe too close.

From the opening salvos the 20-member cast of Stephen Sondheim’s spine-tingling Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will sweep you off your feet and smack dab into a Dickensian world filled with high dudgeon and deep depravity.  The musical is a fierce story of love, loss and revenge merrily served up in all its carnivorous glory with a spot of tea and a stiff upper lip – body parts included.  It’s a grisly horror story dripping with blood and British charm and some of Sondheim’s best songs.

Photographer Shane Canfield

Photographer Shane Canfield

We are introduced to Sweeney Todd alias Benjamin Barker upon his return to London to avenge the death of his wife by the evil and perverse Judge Turpin (Chris Gillespie) and his conspiratorial cohort, Beadle Bamford (Christopher David Harris), and to reunite with his daughter, the beautiful Johanna (Roxanne Scher), who is being held captive by the judge as his ward and future bride.

Todd falls in with Mrs. Lovett, an ambitious and wily widow with a failing meat pie shop.  They strike up an unlikely and diabolical alliance and, in a stroke of business genius, Mrs. Lovett provides Todd with a tonsorial parlor above her store where they gleefully combine the two disparate businesses.  “Think of it as thrift,” she chirps with a dash of gallows humor.  “It seems an awful waste with the price of meat what it is.”

The Little Theatre knew Sweeney Todd was going to be a monster of a production and commandeered three producers to keep it on track.  That it is one of their finest productions to date is due in no small part to Andrew JM Regiec, who appears to have his hand in most elements of the play.  His superb directing, top-notch choreography and staging, including collaborating on set design with Dan Remmers, take this theater and its twelve-piece orchestra to dramatic new heights.  Throw into the mix the award-winning team of Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley who have costumed the show in high Victorian poverty splendor all the way down to the beggar women’s bloomers.  Another clever touch they employ are the scarlet red silk flourishes worn by the ensemble in the opening number, the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, that reveals shades of things to come.

Harv Lester tackles the dark vengeful Todd with masterful aplomb.  From his opening number “No Place Like London” Lester puts the entire audience in his thrall with his tremendous baritone and powerful presence.  His fresh portrayal made me feel as though I were seeing it for the first time.

As Mrs. Lovett, Jennifer Lyons Pagnard, is on par with original Broadway cast member Angela Lansbury (whom this critic remembers fondly).  Pagnard is captivating with gestures so naturally balanced between her left side and right side so as to present a continuous self-portrait.  It was a master class in acting effortlessly.  In addition her fifteen years as a vocalist with the US Air Force Band’s “Singing Sergeants” has gifted her with a performance ability more often honed on a professional stage.  Pagnard knows how to memorialize a character – in spades!

Photographer Shane Canfield

Photographer Shane Canfield

Christopher David Harris is terrific as the smarmy and foppish Beadle whose ghastly encounter with a blind nightingale led my seatmate to let out a shriek heard throughout the theater… and perhaps across the pond.  Keep an eye out for Zachary Frank in the role of Pirelli whose portrayal of the Italian barber is a hilarious foil to the murder and mayhem.

Countless elements contribute to the realism of the show.  Art Snow adds much in terms of special effects including designing blood-spurting razors synchronized to the slashing of Todd’s victims’ throats, a chair that sends victims sliding into an abyss, and a dungeon-worthy oven billowing smoke and flames.  The technical complexities of the show are impressive – as in the two double-decker turntable stages that rotate an astonishing 64 times.  Add to that the more than 80 sound cues and dozens of mood-shifting lighting cues designed by the WATCH Award-winning team of Ken and Patti Crowley and you have a tremendously dynamic stage set.

Highly recommended.

Through August 18th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

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