Consider the three characters at the forefront of the musical Sweeney Todd, which opened last week at the 5th Avenue Theatre under the direction of David Armstrong (through Nov. 13; 206-292-ARTS, www.5thavenuetheatre.org): a homicidal barber bent on bloody revenge; a baker whose one good idea lands her knobby-knee-deep in cannibalism; and then Sondheim himself, operating at the peak of his talents with a deliciously nasty score that pulses with a gleeful gallows humor. It's hard to go wrong.
As the curtain rises on a set that for all its misty boarding-house charm resembles Altman's getup for Popeye, we see immediately where this is going. A staccato beat delivers the opening lines of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and the cast, pale as zombies and stooped under Dickensian rags, drives the number to a chilling, threatening crescendo. This is Jack the Ripper's London, a mid-19th-century gotham of underclass filth and metropolitan fury that conceals sex and murder in every unlit alley. Derived from the maybe-true legend of Sweeney Todd, "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," whose revenge for an unjust prison sentence took the form of rampant bloodletting, Armstrong's production is a Grand Guignol full of spouting crimson, macabre humor, and outsized characters who veer toward the grotesque with every sweeping gesture.
Broadway veteran and television actor Allen Fitzpatrick, donning a bristly, Prince Valiant fright wig, portrays Todd as an almost affectless sociopath whose high, bloodless forehead and unblinking eyes betray a sort of seething fragility. At first, however, Fitzpatrick's performance comes across as oddly flat, as though he's mistaking routed humanity for empty cipher—a problem that extends even to his singing, which at moments takes on the metallic monotone of a subway intercom. It's not until he gets tangled up with his foil, the pie-producing Mrs. Lovett (Carol Swarbrick), that his performance begins to gain nuance and depth; their interactions, so sweetly twisted, work to complete the portrait of madness that is the crux of the narrative. More than anything, this is a testament to the enchanting verve Swarbrick brings to her role as insanity's handmaiden. Lanky and loose-limbed, a bit saucy on the side, she damn near steals the show with a perfect blend of off-kilter sexuality and unhinged sociability. Her particular brand of evil, like her meat pies, proves infectious and addictive, and she spreads her twisted humor over the whole production. Also good in three key supporting roles are Leslie Law as the Beggar Woman, Ivan Hernandez as Anthony Hope, and Sarah Anne Lewis as Johanna; they all turn in strong vocal performances.
Sweeney Todd won eight Tonys when it debuted on Broadway in 1979, and it's widely considered to be one of Sondheim's masterpieces (alongside Into the Woods and A Little Night Music), an ingenious mix of melodrama and social commentary. One of the real strengths of this production is that it fully embraces the more subversive sides of the composer and book writer Hugh Wheeler—the gore, the sexual shenanigans, the generally adult themes. Armstrong doesn't shy away from letting the blood spill, or rather fly, when the barber's beloved blade begins to strike, which is refreshing. (Parents concerned about "gruesome and demented" content are urged to visit 5th Avenue's Web site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.) There is a kind of Dionysian atmosphere to this production, an embracing and relishing of wickedness, which only adds to the fun.
If, on the technical side, Armstrong's staging proves relatively unadventurous—for the most part centering the action squarely on Mrs. Lovett's shop and sweeping everything inward from the periphery—that's as it should be; let everything lean on Sondheim's genius. This is an exquisite musical, the kind of musical, like Singing in the Rain, that even folks who hate musicals should enjoy, if not love. The narrative is perfectly structured, well paced, and, most importantly, self-justifying, a story with songs rather than a mere vehicle for singing. And the songs, embedded like pearls along the arc of drama, are a hoot, especially the uproarious "The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest," and the opening ballad, which will stick in your craw for days.