Robin Hood With Scalpel

Photo by Adam MartinIt's hard not to feel sorry for Stephen Sondheim. While he's produced often, commands nothing but respect and has enjoyed a long, successful career, he's just too quirky for the mass market. He's Elvis Costello to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Billy Joel.

But every reason to raise Sondheim as the savior of the musical form is on display in the Hunger Artists' current production of Sweeney Todd. Everyone who disdains musical theater for its trite subjects, insipid characters and self-parodic production values can find something to like in this production.

Shannon C.M. Flynn's direction is about as minimal as a musical can get: no mics, a lone pianist as musical accompanist. She even eschews the Cockney dialects that plague most Sweeney Todds. But what this Sweeney lacks in spectacle and even authenticity it pays back in dramatic tension.

Sweeney is based loosely on the harrowing exploits of a real-life barber named Sweeney Todd who, working in 18th-century London, may actually have killed unwitting customers and used their carcasses for more than worm food. In composer Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler's adaptation, the pathological Todd is turned into a romantic figure, driven to murder by outrage over how his life was upended by the morally hypocritical Judge Turpin. After years at sea, Sweeney arrives in London hell-bent on revenge. He finds a willing accomplice in Mrs. Lovett, a baker whose meat pies are the worst in London. As Sweeney's rage and apparent insanity grow, he invites vagabonds into his barber's chair; Mrs. Lovett lights upon an industrious way to recycle their corpses.

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Everything in Flynn's staging adds to the dramatic tension of this tale. Melissa Petro's set design evokes the cramped, dingy quarters of London's underclass. Unlike so many lighting schemes, Mark Matzkanin's lighting design actually helps tell the story and illuminate character. The stripped-down music (courtesy of Ben Jose) also succeeds in allowing us to hear Sondheim's lyrics as well as making it seem, at times, that the music itself is a character urgently driving the action.

The technical elements contribute to the intense atmosphere of this production, which is, by any measure, one of the best-directed plays on a local stage. Ever.

And of course there's the acting. Mark Palkoner's Sweeney is brooding and brutal, but with a pain so obvious you can almost forgive his thrasher spree. Simone Nelson's Mrs. Lovett is younger and sexier than most Lovetts, which usually lean toward Angela Lansbury's addled senior portrayal. This Lovett is less senile and kooky, and more scheming and wicked; her relationship to Todd is underpinned by a decadent sexual energy that amps the naughtiness factor.

There is nary a weak link in the ensemble, with Michael Field's suitably soiled Judge Turpin and Chris Fowler's suitably love-smitten Anthony Hope particularly standing out.

In fact, everything in this show works so well that you almost wish Flynn had elevated it to the next level, exploring some of the politics embedded in the story. London during the first industrial revolution was a battlefield of warring classes. And while there's a certain diabolism involved in Sweeney's war against nature, there's also a kind of Swiftian necessity: he's not just killing for fun, but for profit. Meat is scarce, disease is rampant and London's working class toils for pennies a day while the monied class stage decadent orgies in which virtuous women are raped in full view.

That's Judge Turpin's world, but that world is mostly an afterthought in Flynn's production. As well as she tells the tale of Sweeney Todd—and as well as his desperate world is re-created here—Flynn mostly ignores the pathology of Judge Turpin's social set. One example: a key scene in which Turpin lashes himself before preying on a young woman takes place in a dimly lit corner of the stage.

Today, we're certainly accustomed to the truth that the rich are as vile as everybody else; a bit more light—literal light—on upper-class depravity would only improve an already powerful production. It might also help us root even more for Sweeney Todd, the barbarous butcher with one hell of a scalpel to grind.

Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Also, Mon., July 28, 8 p.m. Through Aug. 3. $15-$18.

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