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THEATER REVIEW 'SWEENEY TODD' : Dark Humor : The Conejo Players rendition of the 'Demon Barber of Fleet Street' has less blood than other versions, but it is a must-see.

April 04, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" has set up shop in Thousand Oaks, and the result is an ambitious, spectacular achievement.

For fans of contemporary musical theater, the Conejo Players production is not to be missed.

A legendary character in English folklore, Todd, a murderous 19th-Century Londoner, dates back at least as far as George Dibdin Pitt's 1847 melodrama, "The String of Pearls."

He pops up here and there, including in a venerable music-hall ballad and in Christopher Bond's 1973 play, "Sweeney Todd."

Unjustly deported to Australia as a criminal, Todd returns home to dispatch the judge who raped the barber's wife and (as it turns out) intends to marry Todd's daughter.

He meets a woman, Mrs. Lovett, who makes a pitiful living baking "the worst meat pies in London." The two develop a rapport and set up business together, with Todd supplying the fresh meat.

A sensation when it opened on Broadway in 1979, the show was applauded for its formidable score, its dark humor, Eugene and Franne Lee's striking stage set, and a cast headed by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

Detractors (and many admirers) singled out the literal way that the macabre subject matter was treated, with blood from the vengeful barber's several victims gushing from their throats.

Stephen Sondheim's score is operatic enough that five years after its Broadway debut, the show was added to the repertory of the New York City Opera.

The book was written by London-born Hugh Wheeler, who earlier collaborated with Sondheim on "A Little Night Music" and "Pacific Overtures."

The Conejo production, produced by Regina Mocey and directed by Keith A. Reidell, includes a cast of 28 actors, singers and dancers, and an orchestra of 25 musicians.

George Pollard and Francine Markow are featured as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, with Pollard's delivery closer to the more restrained Len Cariou than his over-the-top (and, some say, more effective) successor, George Hearn.

Like all of the principal players, both are capable of handling Sondheim's convoluted melodies, and their comic touch is sure.

As young lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna, Dan Sachoff and Ilysia J. Wolfe are, appropriately, straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Dominick Certo and Peter C. Sroka play snake-oil salesman Adolpho Pirelli and his young assistant, Jonas Ward; Aileen-Marie Scott is the annoying Beggar Woman.

The reliable Mark Andrew Reyes, last seen in the Camarillo Community Theater's "Pirates of Penzance," and Guy M. Leitzman portray evil judge Turpin and his bailiff, the Beadle.

Some of the principals use appropriate accents; others don't. Their diction is quite clear throughout.

Without duplicating the expansive Broadway stage set, Jack Allaway and his construction crew do a remarkable job of approximating its foundry layout and ingenious appliances, including Todd's trick barber chair.

Allaway is also responsible for the crystal-clear sound and imaginative lighting.

Perhaps out of respect for the refined tastes of the Conejo audience, director Reidell eases up on the blood--as did the touring company, when it played Los Angeles--and somewhat lowers the volume of the industrial whistle that punctuates the show.

Costumes are designed by Susan Jones, with wigs by Paula Fransen.

Zachary Spencer is the musical director; Dave Pier conducts the well-rehearsed, capable orchestra; and the choreography is by Darren Frank.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" continues Thursday through Sunday evenings through May 11 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. Show time is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 on Thursdays, $10 on Friday and Saturdays. For reservations or further information, call (805) 495-3715.

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