It’s taken 33 years for a Wichita theater troupe to have the guts to tackle Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking, award-winning but controversial “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
The reason, of course, is that it’s such a difficult show, both musically (oddball, dissonant rhythms and operatic stretches) and thematically (bloody vengeance and cannibalism). It’s dark, shocking, sometimes titillating, often horrifying and certainly not for everyone.
But Crown Uptown’s stunning new production is a worthy tribute to the 1979 Broadway original (with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury). Under director Matthew Rumsey and music director Jesse Warkentin, it’s ambitious, deliciously malevolent and performed with a thrilling audacity by a cast with universally colorful and impressive voices. Like the Kansas premiere of “Next to Normal” right before it, “Sweeney Todd” is shaking up local theater expectations and proving that Crown Uptown is not your granddad’s dinner-theater anymore.
Tim and Karen Robu, longtime favorites of the local theater scene, play vengeful Sweeney Todd and his go-along, get-along paramour, Mrs. Lovett, surviving in the trashy slums of Victorian-era London. Sweeney was a mild-mannered barber driven mad by an evil judge who imprisoned him for life to steal Sweeney’s beautiful wife and young daughter.
Sweeney escapes after 15 years, returns to take vengeance on the judge but ultimately lashes out indiscriminately to punish the world. Mrs. Lovett, a thrifty widow who makes a living selling meat pies, hits on the idea of baking Sweeney’s victims into her wares and turning a profit.
Tim Robu exudes an air of malignant charm as he oils his way around his potential victims, his husky baritone ranging from heart-breaking anguish to thunderous retribution. He achieves that delicate balance between sympathetic and scary to keep us on the edge of our seats — but also caring.
And Karen Robu is absolutely perfect, from her frumpy, bustling cockney demeanor to her soaring soprano, whether decrying her “Worst Pies in London” or cavorting wickedly about a secret ingredient in “A Little Priest.”
Operatic bass David Feiertag is riveting as the evil Judge Turpin, whose lust destroys Sweeney’s happy family. His lascivious “Pretty Women” duet with Sweeney is one of the melodically beautiful highlights.
Operatic soprano Catherine Bartomeo is lovely and in lively, lilting voice (“Green Finch,” “Kiss Me”) as Sweeney’s blossoming daughter, Johanna, and warm baritone Mark Alpart is dashing as the love-struck young sailor, Anthony, who courts her. The two are the innocent optimists who give this dark tale a light at the end of the tunnel.
Ryan Naimy is haunting and soulful as Mrs. Lovett’s scruffy urchin assistant, Toby, who declares his protective loyalty with “(Nothing’s Going to Harm You) Not While I’m Around.” Mario Castro, with a wonderfully fluid and fluty voice, is hilarious as the flamboyant Italian barber, Pirelli, who becomes Sweeney’s rival – and first victim.
Natalie Swanner wields a surprisingly rich soprano as an old beggar woman with a secret that throws a wrench into Sweeney’s plans. And Craig Richardson is in good voice as the judge’s snotty cohort, Beadle Bamford.
A chorus of six adults and six children, clad in Patty Parker’s eye-catching, multi-layered Victorian costumes, scurry all over the stage for crowd scenes, adding an inadvertent edge of tension by often flirting with the orchestra pit rim.
The set by award-winning Michael Downs is a series of see-through levels made of shipping pallets that let the theater’s brick back wall show through to capture the shadowy backstreets of London with the help of Tyler Lessin’s moody lighting scheme. In the center is a two-story asymmetrical black block on a turntable (sort of a monument to the then-new Industrial Age) that becomes everything from Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop to a Victorian parlor to Sweeney’s barber shop where freshly dispatched victims slide down a chute to a meat grinder in the basement — also portrayed with another turn of the set.
There were a few technical glitches opening night and an inconsistency with British accents (or lack of), but nothing that tripped up the show. The only missing element was the piercing steam whistle (another nod to the Industrial Revolution) that’s used to herald each murder, negating the need for the shock of graphic blood. The first couple of throat-slittings almost slipped by unnoticed, but the whistle finally found its voice to do its spine-chilling work in the crucial home stretch.