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THEATER REVIEWS

Sharp-Edged 'Sweeney Todd' in Brea

April 24, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH

If the new television version of "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is any indication, there may someday be as many variations of the venerable story of the revenge-bent barber and Mrs. Lovett's scrumptious meat pies as there are of "The Phantom of the Opera."

At this point it seems the most popular "Sweeney Todd" will still be Stephen Sondheim's musical, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, based on Christopher Bond's version of the 19th century tale. One reason is that the show can neatly be adjusted to a smaller production to excellent effect. The proof is Gary Krinke's staging for Prism Productions at the Curtis Theatre in Brea.

This gratefully un-miked revival is energetic and colorful; even without the splashing blood of the Broadway production, it keeps its sense of humor in the middle of its gory story. Sweeney Todd, returning to London after escaping false imprisonment at Botany Bay, is intent on revenge for the death of his wife 15 years earlier and on finding his then-infant daughter, now a delectable young lady.

While his deliverer, sailor Anthony, goes off to find romance, Todd finds Mrs. Lovett, the loquacious proprietor of a dingy meat pie shop. The path from Todd's dreadful barber chair to Mrs. Lovett's kitchen is short, culminating a distinct improvement in the pies and honing Todd's taste for vengeance.

The macabre humor Sondheim et al. find in the story doesn't dim the fact that this musical is close to an opera, but one so accessible that its charm and irony are contagious. What it does require is voices up to its demands.

Robert Hoyt III has the vocal power needed for Todd, plus steely eyes. If his soliloquy "Epiphany" is not as terrifying as it could be, it doesn't matter. His Todd is frightening enough and as deliciously funny as he should be.

Elisabeth Graham is a delightful Mrs. Lovett, not trying to ape Angela Lansbury, who created the role. This is a mostly fresh Mrs. Lovett within the parameters of the script. She is cuddly, giggly and as evilly amusing as Todd in her own fashion. There are moments when her strong voice sinks below audibility, but that's a case of misjudging the acoustics of the Curtis Theatre.

Holly Stiles, with her glittering soprano, makes a lovely and delicate Johanna, Todd's daughter. Keith Wolfe, as the snarling Judge Turpin, and John Massey Jr. as the Beadle, are both excellent. Jeff Weeks also stands out as the phony barber Pirelli, who challenges Todd's skill.

One of the highlights is Michael Criste's buoyant and touching Tobias Ragg, the backward street urchin Mrs. Lovett befriends and who unwittingly brings Lovett and Todd to their just ends.

The weak link in Krinke's casting is A.K. Palmer as Anthony Hope, the sailor who rescues Johanna. Palmer's very light pop voice is not up to Anthony's heroic melodies, and in bright lights he doesn't seem quite the effervescent young stalwart he's supposed to be.

*

"Sweeney Todd," Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends May 3. $13-$15. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Robert Hoyt III: Sweeney Todd

Elisabeth Graham: Mrs. Lovett

Holly Stiles: Johanna

A.K. Palmer: Anthony Hope

Michael Criste: Tobias Ragg

Keith Wolfe: Judge Turpin

John Massey Jr.: The Beadle

Jeff Weeks: Pirelli

A Prism Productions revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler. Produced by Mary Engwall. Directed by Gary Krinke. Musical direction: Jo Monteleone. Scenic design: Todd Faux. Lighting: Brad Enoch. Costumes: Becky Wallace. Sound: Tim Engwall. Stage manager: Colette Naffaa.

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