SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Effective Theatre, at the Athenaeum Theatre. The 1979 Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical was an epic-scale production by director Harold Prince, who emphasized the parallels between the show’s penny-dreadful plot–about a mad barber who slits people’s throats and his companion, Mrs. Lovett, who bakes the corpses into meat pies–and the capitalist cannibalism of Victorian England’s industrial revolution.
But the show’s horror and moral outrage are better conveyed in intimate, less elaborate stagings that focus on Sondheim’s richly complex score and the demented yet strangely sympathetic characters. The Effective Theatre’s revival, which inaugurates the Athenaeum’s rehabbed second-floor studio, does justice to the music: conductor-keyboardist Jeff Bell’s crisp choral direction and precise playing illuminate Sondheim’s intricate harmonies and lean, lustrous melodies. But director L. Walter Stearns fails to achieve the show’s potential for gripping suspense, partly because Kevin Will’s stodgy Sweeney lacks the vocal and dramatic resonance to go with his burly physique.
Effective pathos and macabre humor are evident in Tammy Menegheni’s fine Mrs. Lovett, however, and in Charlie Clark’s poignant debut as her surrogate son. Particularly impressive is Bill Ingraham in the supporting role of Sweeney’s nemesis, the depraved Judge Turpin; with his gaunt intensity and eerie baritone, Ingraham would have made a superb Sweeney despite his slim build. All in all, this is a creditable if imperfect rendition of a genuine musical-theater masterpiece.