Baldwinsville Theatre Guild’s penchant for mounting splashy, demanding musicals continues with its current production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, running through Feb. 6. Within the snug confines of the Presbyterian Education Center’s auditorium, director Korrie Taylor has to corral a cast of 23 performers, while music director Abel Searor wields his baton over a nine-member ensemble. Good luck making room for the proverbial kitchen sink.
Sweeney Todd isn’t exactly a summer drive through wine country, either, with only sporadic local runs, such as a mid-1980s Salt City Center production starring Bob Brown. Yet composer Stephen Sondheim’s dark-humored classic could be labeled as the stage’s only slasher opera.
In 18th-century England, Sweeney Todd (Benjamin J. Sills) is back in town with murder on his mind. The Todd name is just an alias, however. He was once known as Benjamin Barker, an honest barber sent to Botany Bay 15 years earlier on a trumped-up charge by the villainous Judge Turpin (Robert G. Searle) in order to pursue Todd’s wife Lucy.
Now a prison escapee, Todd vows vengeance on the hanging judge while also attempting to save his grown-up daughter Johanna (Ceara Windhausen) from Turpin’s clutches. Once the bodies start piling up at Todd’s reopened tonsorial parlor, however, that’s where lonely widower Mrs. Lovett (Cathleen O’Brien Brown) comes in, since Todd can supply her with the necessary baking ingredients for her “world-famous” meat pies.
The penny dreadful legend of Todd was mostly relegated to exploitation, such as the 1936 British horror movie with music-hall veteran Tod Slaughter and the notorious 1970 drive-in opus I Drink Your Blood. Since Sondheim went legit with the source material, however, Sweeney Todd offers a yummy course in Grand Guignol excess, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics (such as the Lovett-Todd duet “A Little Priest”) that are deliciously witty.
As Todd, Benjamin J. Sills expertly plumbs the depths of psychotic madness, yet he also manages some audience sympathy for his devil. Sills’ facial reactions when Todd nibbles one of Lovett’s indigestible pies is worthy of a silent movie comedian. Cathleen O’Brien Brown likewise does bravura work as Mrs. Lovett, managing to be adorably wacko in her misguided efforts to win Todd’s heart.
As the central lovebirds, Ceara Windhausen’s Johanna and Colin Keating’s Anthony provide an oasis of tender sanity amid the show’s increasing sense of spiraling doom. Robert G. Searle hits the right notes of coruscating evil as Turpin, while Liam Fitzpatrick clearly relishes the nastier moments of his judge’s sidekick. As a rival barber named Pirelli, Dan Williams brings the type of broad accent you’d hear at a Festa Italiana bocce ball tournament. And Erin Williamson darts in and out of the show as a beggar woman with a big secret (uh-oh.)
Searor’s able musical direction does justice to Sondheim’s complex score. And while director Taylor soft-pedals some of the expected graphic bloodletting, the horror remains in this spirited production. Lots of local theater veterans also turn up in the ensemble, such as Michaela Oney, Jennifer Pearson and Kathy Burke Egloff sporting creepshow makeup that would be found in a George Romero zombie movie.