Review of Sweeney Todd at The Muny

    A brilliant show deserves a brilliant staging. Sweeney Todd is getting one at The Muny. The twice-delayed, eagerly awaited production is the Muny’s first mounting of the 1979 show with music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler.

    Muny favorite Ben Davis brings a magnificent voice and a chilling stage presence to his superb portrayal of the title character. Todd is a barber who is obsessed with exacting revenge on the corrupt Judge Turpin. He transported Todd to Australia on a trumped-up charge, then raped Todd’s wife and adopted Todd’s daughter, Joanna.

    When his first attempt to kill the judge fails, Todd resolves to murder all his future customers because they all deserve to die. His partner in crime is his landlady, Mrs. Lovett. She owns a shop that sells meat pies and helps Todd dispose of his victims. Carmen Cusack sings gorgeously as Mrs. Lovett and relishes the offbeat humor in the character’s self-dealing.

    The entire cast sings beautifully and acts with total conviction. Robert Cuccioli shows that melodramatic clichés are not needed to make Judge Turpin a menacing figure. The young romantic couple is fully sympathetic in the portrayals of Riley Noland as Johanna and Jake Boyd as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who befriended Todd after rescuing him at sea.

    Julie Hanson is a haunting figure as the Beggar Woman. Stephen Wallem is properly intimidating as the judge’s henchman, Beadle Bamford.

    Adolfo Pirelli, Todd’s rival in barbering, is convincingly transformed by Hernando Umana from a fawning charlatan to a vindictive blackmailer. Lincoln Clauss captures the endearing temperament of Pirelli’s guileless assistant, Tobias Ragg.

    The director, Rob Ruggiero, ensures that every moment matters in an interpretation filled with insight. The associate direction and musical staging are by Jessica Hartman and Ralph Perkins.

    Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design has an industrial look that calls to mind the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution on 19th century London. Three large, spartan set pieces occupy the stage’s central turntable. They all have stairs leading to an upper level. The scene can be reset with impressive speed by the turntable or the lifts on either side of the conductor at the front of the stage.

    Admirable help in establishing the setting comes from Alejo Vietti’s period costumes, Ashley Rae Callahan’s wigs, and John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound. The production’s sparing use of video makes sense because of the dark material and the positioning of the set pieces in front of the rear video screen. When it matters most, however, Caite Hevner’s video and John Lasiter’s lighting astonish the audience with the horror needed to drive home the show’s condemnation of violence.

    The splendid ensemble makes the show’s chorus a formidable group. Under music director James Moore, the wonderful Muny Orchestra plays in perfect balance with the voices. Sondheim’s lyrics have the clarity they need for maximum impact.

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through July 22 at 8:15 p.m.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Ben Davis and the company of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Julie A. Merkle.