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THEATER REVIEW 'SWEENEY TODD' : Meaty Show : The musical about murder and pies gets first-rate treatment from the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group.

July 25, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eyes misty with longing for his lost daughter, the demon barber of Fleet Street sings his touching ballad "Johanna" as he strokes his glistening razor through the lathered beard of an unsuspecting customer. But sentiment quickly turns to horror as he slits the upturned throat without missing a beat. The body drops through a trapdoor into the sinister pie shop downstairs--another delivery for Mrs. Lovett's unique solution to the meat shortage in early Victorian London.

Chew on that one. It's an unforgettable moment from Stephen Sondheim's brooding masterpiece "Sweeney Todd," courtesy of the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group. Mixing Grand Guignol melodrama with black humor, social oppression with personal tragedy, "Todd" pushes the dimensions of the Broadway musical to operatic scope--a little night music in a somber key.

Happily, it receives first-rate treatment at the SBCC Garvin Theatre. The production offers the best of both worlds: professional guest artists in key roles, backed by the deep pockets of academic subsidy. What we get is nothing like a student production, but staging at a level of quality beyond the resources of most theater groups.

Director Rick Mokler has retained much of the original Harold Prince staging design from the Broadway production, including intricate movable scaffolding and the revolving, double-tiered cube for the meat pie shop with Todd's tonsorial parlor on top. A full-voiced 11-member chorus and a 17-piece orchestra insure a solid musical foundation to the piece.

Still, it's an ambitious project no matter how you slice it. Anyone can whistle a happy tune, but it takes tough-minded determination to transform the blood-soaked villain of a popular British fairy tale into a sympathetic figure of social retribution. In Hugh Wheeler's book (inspired by Christopher Bond's nonmusical play), Todd was falsely deported on a trumped-up charge by an evil judge who had lecherous designs on the barber's wife. He returns after 15 years to seek revenge with the deranged meat-pie lady who loves him.

But a funny thing happens on the way to vengeance. When Todd misses his first chance to kill the judge, the would-be assassin goes berserk at life's follies and decides to slaughter his customers.

In the role of Sweeney, Richard Irving evokes a convincing level of rage, delivered at times in a superb baritone voice--his rendition of "They All Deserve to Die" is bloodcurdling. Unfortunately, opening night brought some flutters and spells of inaudibility that a body mike could ameliorate. Irving makes a very humanized Todd, bereft of the ghoulish pale makeup usually associated with the role.

But the production really belongs to Pamla Vale as his sidekick, Mrs. Lovett. Simultaneously endearingly daffy and chillingly cannibalistic, this moral gypsy sustains a delicate balance between comic relief and horror. Vale takes the role in an original direction in the scene where her adopted street urchin Tobias (Davis Freeman) sings his devoted "Not While I'm Around." During the song, she lets us see genuine maternal feeling in Lovett, and sorrow for what she has to do--though the lapse into humanity is only temporary.

For most of the play, the two roll merrily along in their killing spree, serving up the remains in meat pies to Lovett's lower-class clientele. Their crimes are linked to the theme of oppression, and Todd becomes a kind of social avenger for the masses.

The only relief in this West End story comes from the infatuated young lovers, Todd's daughter Johanna (Mary Dombek), imprisoned by the evil judge, who falls for the salty Atlantic overtures of her sailor beau (Richard Dunne). Their silly charm stands out from the Dickensian air of industrial squalor. All in all, it's an impressive outing from the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group, another reflection of the company's commitment to more adventurous material than Neil Simon retreads. The flaws in the production involving sound mixing are regrettable, for it's a pity to miss a single line of Sondheim's sparkling lyrics. But it's well worth seeing if you've got the stomach for challenging fare.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Sweeney Todd" continues through Aug. 3 at the Santa Barbara City College Garvin Theatre, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Ticket prices are $10 to $12. Call (805) 965-5935 for reservations or further information.

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