Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, “Sweeney Todd,” is a challenge for any theater. PlayMakers Repertory Company has marshaled its considerable resources for it, with Broadway veterans as leads, a top-notch ensemble, an experienced creative team and a stunning set.
At Saturday’s opening, not all the challenges were met, with indications the production was under-rehearsed. Still, there was much to be admired.
Jan Chambers’ setting is nearly the star of the show. Filling more than half the playing space, it melds gritty London locations into an industrial complex of catwalks, gears and secret compartments. Combined with Charlie Morrison’s shadowy lighting and Bill Brewer’s smartly detailed Victorian costumes, the physical elements are worth the ticket. Music director Mark Hartman adds spooky atmosphere with the often-eerie accompaniment, while choreographer Tito Hernandez keeps the crowd bustling in the big numbers.
Impressive supporting roles in this thriller about a wronged barber bent on revenge include Brian Owen’s pompous competing barber Adolfo Pirelli, Max Bitar’s put-upon assistant Tobias, and Blake Segal’s self-important Beadle Bamford. Ray Dooley expertly portrays Judge Turpin’s villainous designs on his ward Johanna (the radiant Mya Ison) who has fallen for young sailor Anthony (the sweet-voiced Jade Arnold).
As Sweeney, David St. Louis’ imposing stage presence and booming baritone project chilling menace. But on Saturday, he played everything with unvarying intensity, allowing for little nuance. That intensity also affected his vocals, often obscuring lyrics.
Annie Golden gave Mrs. Lovett an amusing come-what-may attitude, her high-pitched voice used to comic effect. But she seemed tentative in her dialogue and songs, her concentration limiting the role’s range and energy.
The pair’s several numbers together suffered from insecurity, most disappointingly in the showstopper, “A Little Priest.” Golden faltered on a number of lines and St. Louis often cut short her punch lines with too-quick reactions. It didn’t help that director Jen Wineman had them constantly changing positions, blurring the hilarious rhymes and innuendos.
Wineman rightly keeps the crowds active and smartly clarifies overlapping scenes. But she asks for too much movement where the words need precedence, a requirement for Sondheim. Wineman’s direction doesn’t go much beyond the story’s surface, with little exploration of the emotional levels that can make the script more than a penny-dreadful tale.
Additional performances should smooth out some problems. First timers will get an indication of what makes the work a masterpiece, if not the full force of its estimable power.
What: “Sweeney Todd” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Apr. 5-9, 12-16, 21-23; 2 p.m. Apr. 9-10, 17
Tickets: $15-$64 (April 5, community night, $15)
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org