Theater Review - "Sweeney Todd" still cuts to the quick

Kevin Harry's baritone tops off Sondheim's classic musical thriller at Actor's Express

Kevin Harry's singing voice doesn't sound like it should come from his throat — a volcano or a thundercloud seems like a more appropriate source for his resounding baritone. At times in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Harry hits notes so deep and forceful, you feel as though the Earth could open up and swallow Actor's Express.

Such an outcome wouldn't even be that surprising, given that Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed "musical thriller" revels in themes of mad love and violent revenge that extend not just through foggy London town, but pervade the whole of human society. Directed by Freddie Ashley, Actor's Express stages a moody, compelling Sweeney Todd that nevertheless takes some of the edge off the work's wickedness.

Harry plays the title role, an ex-con who returns to London under a new name, seeking revenge on corrupt Judge Turpin (Michael Strauss), whose schemes left Todd's life and family in ruins years ago. Todd finds an ally in Mrs. Lovett (a funny Deborah Bowman), an addle-minded baker who pines for the killer barber while proposing they bake his victims into pies.

The story finds some bright, redemptive spots with Todd's sailor friend Anthony (Benjamin Davis), who falls for Turpin's lovely, imprisoned young ward Johanna (Kelly Chapin Martin). Davis' performance has an intensity that adds another dimension to the role. You get the sense that if his desires are thwarted, he could become another Todd.

Sondheim is one of Broadway's most dazzling composers and lyricists, and numbers like "A Little Priest" sound downright Shakespearean as Harry and Bowman joyfully sing about making foodstuffs of professions, such as "Shepherd's Pie peppered with actual shepherd on top." Yet Sondheim doesn't make things easy for his performers, and Sweeney Todd includes some of his most intricate compositions. During the most verbally challenging, rapid-patter ones, you can detect the singers' work to keep up with the syllables without losing their Cockney accents.

Instead, the show finds its sea legs with the simpler words and soaring melodies, and the actors seem to embrace the creepier implications. (Maybe a little too creepy, in Strauss' pervy, self-flagellating rendition of "Johanna: Mea Culpa.") "My Friends," Todd's reunion with his scissors and razor, comes across as a deeply-felt love song to some potential murder weapons. In Act Two's "Joanna (Quartet)" Todd sadly sings about the daughter he may never know, while matter-of-factly slashing throats in his barber chair. Turpin and Todd share the tender duet about "Pretty Women" while one contemplates murdering the other.

Tim Burton's 2007 film version reveled in geysering gore and Gothic fashion. Perhaps coincidentally, Actor's Express version goes in an opposite direction that's essentially bloodless, with more or less modern dress, although it retains the play's critique of the Industrial Revolution: The action includes piercing factory whistles, while Todd and Lovett essentially come up with an assembly line for killing and cooking one set of customers to sell to another.

Perhaps the approach means to lend the horror-story plot some present-day plausibility: you don't have to look far on the Internet to find men obsessed with violence and the objectification of women. No matter the setting, Sweeney Todd has unnerving powers, although given that some of the Actor's Express cast have hipster facial hair and contemporary tattoos, you might suspect a better subtitle would be The Demon Barber of Brooklyn.

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