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Review: Palm Beach Dramaworks' 'Sweeney Todd' is delicious

Correspondent

When it comes to theatrical time travel, a bit of murder, mayhem and exquisitely beautiful music can be just the ticket. Palm Beach Dramaworks’ just-opened production of “Sweeney Todd” puts the lie to the notion that excellent musical theater is a seasonal thing in South Florida.

The company’s version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Tony Award-winning show isn’t merely good: It’s great. This exemplary production is deeply affecting, gloriously sung and acted, staged with steampunk style and an eye toward underscoring the relationship between a vengeful Victorian-era barber and an opportunistic maker of meat pies.

Director Clive Cholerton and star Shane Tanner give us a Sweeney Todd who returns to London after 15 years in an Australian prison determined to find the wife and daughter stolen from him by a corrupt judge.

Initially, you see the ruined but decent man formerly known as Benjamin Barker. But once he learns of his family’s fate — his wife, Lucy, raped by Judge Turpin (Michael McKenzie), poisoned herself with arsenic, while their daughter Johanna (Jennifer Molly Bell) has become the judge’s ward and the object of his lust — Barker morphs into the vengeful Sweeney Todd, who more than earns the descriptor “the demon barber of Fleet Street.”

Sondheim and Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd,” inspired by the 1973 Christopher Bond play that introduced psychological motivation to a familiar Victorian tale, weaves murder, cannibalism and an antihero’s tragic fall into its plot. But the result is far richer than mere bloody Grand Guignol entertainment.

Operatic in scale and its vocal demands, almost through-sung, “Sweeney Todd” requires performers with superb voices and the ability to convey character and complexity as they sing. Cholerton’s company has those qualities in abundance.

Tanner, a Carbonell Award winner who took a break from acting after the birth of his daughter, reclaims his place as one of the region’s most mesmerizing musical-theater stars. His Sweeney can charm and deceive or exact bloody vengeance, his rich baritone conveying a damaged man’s anguish.

He has an extraordinary stage partner in Ruthie Stephens as his piemaking landlady Nellie Lovett. Stephens is a beauty with music hall chops, and her Mrs. Lovett is nothing if not pragmatic. It is she who comes up with the notion of turning Sweeney’s victims into the filling for meat pies, thus solving the problem of body disposal while turning her failing business into a thriving one. Stephens’ Mrs. Lovett, who clearly envisions herself as the future Mrs. Todd when she sings “By the Sea,” is an amoral yet alluring dynamo.

Bell as the imperiled Johanna and Paul Louis Lessard as the smitten sailor Anthony Hope are a glorious romantic pair. The two sing with voices of transporting beauty, she trilling like her subjects as she sings “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” he turning Anthony’s falling-in-love song “Johanna” into an emotionally irresistible experience.

Shelley Keelor is heart-wrenching as the mysterious Beggar Woman, who pairs her pleas for money with bawdy propositions, and Keelor’s expressive voice conveys all the emotional colors of a deeply damaged woman.

As the true villains of the piece, McKenzie is a handsome devil as Judge Turpin, and the magnetic Jim Ballard is both cruel and comic as the judge’s sidekick, Beadle Bamford. Alex Mansoori finds the pompous huckster and the dangerous man underneath Sweeney’s rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli. Evan Jones as Pirelli’s former assistant Tobias Ragg sings a tender “Not While I’m Around” with Stephens, but he doesn’t quite evoke the childlike qualities that deepen the relationship and turn Mrs. Lovett’s subsequent actions into a horror show.

In multiple roles, Terry Hardcastle, Christopher Holloway, Hannah Richter and Victoria Lazun add to the drama and the adroit singing of a complex score under the excellent musical direction of Manny Schvartzman, who plays keyboards as he leads the five-piece ensemble placed behind the set.

That spooky, multifaceted set by Michael Amico turns challenging and awkward whenever it’s time for Sweeney to send one of his victims plunging from his upstairs “tonsorial parlor” into the basement, where the transformation from fresh corpse to meat-pie filling takes place. In many productions, the actor slips from Sweeney’s barber chair and vanishes down a chute. Here, he has to fall precisely onto a platform (not easy, as one actor whose head got smacked might tell you), which then slowly lowers him to meat grinder/oven level. Also worthy of note: The shiny new “barber chair” Sweeney buys after the meat-pie business booms looks like a contemporary office chair.

Brian O’Keefe’s steampunk costumes are dazzling and revelatory: Check out the spray of feathers on the judge’s top hat, the sadistic sartorial style of Beadle Bamford, the upgrade in Mrs. Lovett’s attire and accessories after her meat pies begin selling like hotcakes.

Lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas bathes the stage in blood red whenever a murder occurs, as sound designer Brad Pawlak supplies a screaming whistle capable of waking the newly dead.

The run of “Sweeney Todd” isn’t a long one, but for lovers of great musical theater, this production is worth a drive from anywhere in South Florida. Bravo, especially to Cholerton, Tanner and Stephens.

“Sweeney Todd” runs through Aug. 6 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday, and 7 p.m. some Sundays. Tickets cost $67 ($15 for students; theatergoers 18 to 40 pay their age). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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