Attend the tale! Sweeney is back in DC in all of his pie-eating, throat-slitting glory. Rounding out Signature Theatre’s Season of Sondheim in honor of the late and great composer, this intimate new staging of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the fourth time Signature has produced this enduringly-popular musical. In this bloody production, intriguingly inventive costuming and staging effectively depict considerable gore without any liquid fake blood to cause slips or spills. At the heart of the show, the gorgeous score—featuring iconic numbers including “A Little Priest,” “My Friends,” and “ Worst Pies in London”—thrills anew in the hands of the splendid leading pair.
A deserving finale to Signature’s Season of Sondheim, outstanding lead performances and fantastic technical design make “Sweeney Todd” a delight for old, new, and soon-to-be fans.
In this darkly hilarious story, Sweeney Todd’s (Nathaniel Stampley) quest for vengeance against the judge (John Leslie Wolfe) who destroyed his life, attacked his wife, and stole his daughter spirals into a ruthless obsession, with an ever-mounting body count. Stampley’s Sweeney tones down the volatile rage of many portrayals. Instead, this Sweeney is restrained and focused as he stalks his prey, his warm baritone frightfully controlled as he swears “we all deserve to die.” Balancing Sweeney, Bryonha Marie’s Mrs. Lovett is an absolute delight—maniacally ebullient as she innovates an efficient disposal for Sweeney’s victims. In the large cast of eighteen, Paul Scanlan also stands out as the enamored Anthony, delivering a gorgeous rendition of “Johanna.” The trapped young girl of whom he sings, Sweeney’s daughter (Signature regular Katie Mariko Murray), seems particularly frail and soft-spoken in this adaptation.
Under Sarna Lapine’s direction, “Sweeney Todd” is stripped down, but still effective. Although the reenactment of what became of Sweeney’s wife Lucy forgoes the opulent ball gowns and masks about which Mrs. Lovett sings, the tragic fate Lucy meets is nonetheless clear. Avoiding complicated mechanics, Sweeney’s barber chair sits on wheels so the recipients of “the closest shaves of their lives” can be easily removed. Perhaps the only misstep is the overly literal metaphor of Johanna as a songbird in a cage, with a human-sized cage descending over her as her guardian, Judge Turpin, lusts for her.
The thrust stage at the center of Mikko Suzuki MacAdam’s scenic design features twin steam vents, evoking a misty London street. Six hooks descend from the ceiling to hold birdcages, flowers, lanterns, and even corpses during the show. Without the space for major set pieces, minimal furniture—such as a barber’s chair, a baking rack, or a chaise lounge—trace out the various settings. Dramatic lighting from Jess Belsky generates menace with ample low-angle light, including a spotlight that casts a sharp shadow of Sweeney on the wall, blade held high as he declares “At last, my arm is complete again!”
The opulent imagery of “My Friends” (when Sweeney reunites with his old razor blades) seems to have inspired Robert Perdziola’s costuming design. Early violence is represented by thin red ribbons, pulled out from hiding places with bodices and collars, building into tangles of strings and fabric that wink at guts and viscera. As the plot thickens, Sweeney’s promise, “Friends, you shall drip rubies,” is fulfilled as the swing of the razor reveals rivers of sparkling crimson beading and sequins. In less violent scenes, Perdziola’s period outfits remain cleverly thoughtful. Johanna’s high-necked white gown silhouettes her in the light, while the evolution of Mrs. Lovett’s dingy gray outfit to a colorful, playfully patterned dress reflects the changing fortunes of her pie shop.
“Sweeney Todd” remains a perennial favorite for its deliciously macabre humor and soaring score. Signature’s orchestra is impressive for a theatre of its size, with sixteen musicians for a stage that seats less than three-hundred, but is still considerably smaller than the 26-piece orchestrations of the original Broadway production. In scenes with only the nine-person ensemble, the scoring occasionally sounds thin. But the production nails the musical’s comedic beats and the intimacy of the scenic design intensifies the emotional core of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” A deserving finale to Signature’s Season of Sondheim, outstanding lead performances and fantastic technical design make “Sweeney Todd” a delight for old, new, and soon-to-be fans.
Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission.
Age rating: 12+
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs through July 9, 2023 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. Box Office: In-person or by phone Monday through Sunday: 12 pm – 8 pm, 703-820-9771. Phone service begins 11 am on days with matinee performances. For more information and tickets, go online.
Masks are always optional but strongly encouraged in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on Thursdays and Sundays.
Face masks are optional but strongly encouraged inside the performance spaces Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.