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A Little Off the Top 

Great voices keep Sweeney Todd spurting at Cain Park

If you think summertime is all about sunshine, lollipops, and lighthearted musicals, and if that gives you a bad case of the sugar shakes, Cain Park's production of Sweeney Todd is a sure cure.

This bloody and brooding venture into the mind of a mad barber in the bowels of London is like being handed a cup of three-day-old coffee grounds and lemon peels. But an engrossing score by Stephen Sondheim lifts it out of the muck, and the book by Hugh Wheeler spins plenty of thrills. 

In this production, the singers give Sondheim's muscular music its due under the musical direction of Jodie Ricci, with some stellar work by the featured players. Unfortunately, an acting void at the center and volume issues tend to soften scenes that should gleam and glisten. 

Subtitled "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Sweeney Todd tells the story of a barber who was unjustly imprisoned by the vile Judge Turpin. When Sweeney is released, he finds out that his wife apparently killed herself, and his daughter Johanna is living with the judge who sentenced him. Turpin intends to marry the girl as soon as possible, even though she has fallen for Sweeney's pal, young Anthony Hope. 

Nursing a violent payback jones, Sweeney meets up with Mrs. Lovett, who makes the worst meat pies in town. They eventually join forces, with Sweeney setting up shop above her maggoty cafe. As Sweeney begins to slice his patrons' throats, lying in wait for the judge, Mrs. Lovett dices his cadavers into tummy-pleasin' people pies. 

This is a daunting work and, as directed by Paul Gurgol, it gets many things absolutely right. Russ Borski's menacing set, props, and lighting and Terry Pieritz's spot-on costumes add verisimilitude. 

In featured roles, John Paul Boukis humorously feasts on the scenery as rival barber Pirelli, and Nick Koesters avoids channeling Snidely Whiplash as he crafts a quietly sinister Judge Turpin. Bob Russell, as the slimy Beadle, is a cockroach in suit and spats, and Amiee Collier is a scummy mess as the beggar crone with a secret. There are no higher compliments. 

The problem comes with the actor in the title role. As Sweeney, Benjamin Czarnota sings like an angel, albeit a scruffy and homicidal one. But he overacts from the neck up and underacts from the neck down, displaying too many grimaces and icy stares while leaving his body in neutral. By not fully animating Sweeney, we are left with scenes that feel flabby instead of fierce, particularly when he is cutting throats in his barbershop-cum-abattoir. 

Although she also sings well, this vacuum leaves Patty Lohr as Mrs. Lovett less to work with in her many scenes with Sweeney. As their assistant Tobias, Max Joseph is suitably naive but doesn't quite have the voice for "Not While I'm Around." Chris McCarrell and Valerie Reaper, as the lovestruck Anthony and Johanna, croon sweetly. 

Even though too many lyrics and laugh lines are drowned out by an overly loud orchestra, this Sweeney is at times a feast for the eyes and ears. It just has a bit less Sweeney than it should.


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