‘SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET’ HIGHLY RECOMMENDED When: Through Nov. 9 Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Tickets: $39-$45 Info: (773) 777-9884; porchlightmusic theatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
The cover of Porchlight Music Theatre’s 2014-2015 brochure shows a typewritten note from Stephen Sondheim addressed to the company as it embarks on an entire season devoted to the work of the Broadway master. It reads: “Congratulations on your 20th season, and thank you so much for doing my shows so beautifully.”
Porchlight’s all-Sondheim season began Tuesday night with a fiery, often revelatory production of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” arguably Sondheim’s greatest work. And all I could think was: Sondheim probably cannot even imagine just how beautifully and insightfully this company deals with his work.
One thing is for certain: In addition to stellar performances by those in the chorus as well as the leading roles, Porchlight’s grand-scale yet intensely intimate version of this musical brings new clarity to a crucial aspect of Hugh Wheeler’s book. For the first time in memory (and I’ve lost count of just how many different productions of this show I’ve seen, from the 1979 Broadway original, to opera house and storefront stages alike), the sense of the existence of good and evil in a single soul, and just what can flip the switch, has been made palpable. So has the tension between the ferocious energy of the life force and the devouring power of death.
The difference in Michael Weber’s supremely well-directed production can be sensed from the start as it is focuses on the traumatized Tobias Ragg, the innately good-hearted apprentice who has seen the most hellish things, standing in a bloody apron and then being led away by police officers. This sets the stage ideally for “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” as the whole hellish world of Victorian London gathers for the thrilling operatic chorale that will lead us back into the start of Sweeney’s bloody pursuit. (Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s balcony-framed set, as well as his particularly ghoulish barber chair rigging, deserve special applause.)
As Sweeney, the bearlike David Girolmo expertly suggests the volatility of a man whose emotions run deep, and whose obsessive quest for revenge to the exclusion of all else can only end in tragedy. But it is Rebecca Finnegan’s Mrs. Lovett that is most unforgettable here. Finnegan, a force of nature, gives the finest portrayal of the ferociously pragmatic pie-maker I’ve seen to date (just watch that woman cook), and the competition for such an honor is fierce. And when she and Girolmo pair for that deliciously comic rhyme-fest, “A Little Priest,” you can even forget this verbally brilliant song is a sophisticated riff on cannibalism.
Along with the stunning Porchlight debut of Miles Blim (as Tobias), a senior at Oak Park High School with an operatic voice and riveting acting skills (he would make a sensational Jim Morrison at some point), there are splendid performances by two golden-voiced performers as the innocent lovers — Anthony Hope, the young sailor (Brian Acker), and Johanna, Todd’s lost daughter (Stephanie Stockstill) — who light up the stage in the wonderfully manic “Kiss Me.” And that’s just the start. Kelli Harrington is a haunting Beggar Woman; Edward J. MacLennan is ideally understated as the perverted Judge Turpin; Matthias Austin is perfection as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, and Kevin Webb is most amusing as the pseudo-Italian barber, Pirelli.
Doug Peck’s surging musical direction (with Michael Kaish, Alexander Ellsworth, Suzanne Gillen, Brent Roman and Peck perched above the stage) envelops the theater, as does Dina DiCostanzo’s musical staging. Bill Morey’s costumes are grandly Victorian. And there is satanic lighting by Greg Hofmann and Jess Goings. A city on fire. And a tale you will most certainly want to “attend.”