Sweeney Flawed

Any way you slice it, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be bloody good fun. Currently running at KD Studio Theatre in a production by the community theater group Level Ground Arts, the 1979 musical is regarded as one of the composer-lyricist's masterpieces, a sung-through horror story that's also perversely witty.

But if you've ever seen this show done in a big way — the original Broadway production starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury; the 2005 Broadway revival starring Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone; the 2007 Tim Burton-directed film with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter; or any of several versions on local professional stages, including ones at Casa Mañana and WaterTower Theatre — then your expectations may be a bit too high for what Level Ground Arts is able to achieve.

This is a low-budget company working with volunteer performers in a space fraught with technical problems. On opening night, a big piece of scenery was put out of commission by a live electrical wire that threatened to fry any actor who got too close to it. Ten minutes before curtain, as we learned later, director John de los Santos was improvising new blocking with the cast. Good thing they chose safety over spectacle. There are enough ghoulish deaths in Sweeney Todd as it is.

Several good professional actors appear in this Sweeney, which is the only reason to recommend it. Lately, local pros have been dropping to Level Ground's C-level standards to do musicals on their bucket lists (like LGA's Legally Blonde and Xanadu earlier this season), or just to keep their acting muscles warm until the next paying gig. Two well-regarded professionals play leads in this show: Shane Strawbridge in the title role of Sweeney and Andi Allen as his henchwoman, Mrs. Lovett.

Strawbridge appeared this summer with Fort Worth's Trinity Shakespeare Festival and has sung and acted in musicals at Lyric Stage, Uptown Players and WaterTower. Ms. Allen just finished directing Uptown Players' hit comedy The Divine Sister but has been working closely with LGA as an actress and director for the past couple of years. Max Swarner, playing lovesick sailor Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd, is one of Dallas musical theater's hottest young up-and-comers, with major roles recently in musicals at Theatre Three, Lyric Stage and Uptown Players.

These credits are worth mentioning because the performances by Allen, Strawbridge and Swarner — particularly Swarner, whose voice could melt what remains of the polar ice caps — are so much more polished and emotionally intense compared to nearly everyone else onstage in Sweeney Todd. When you mix trained actors with amateurs and students, as they do in this production, you see what a difference experience makes. It's about sustained focus and energy, and the ability to bring something interesting to a show besides just the desire to perform in it.

Strawbridge, a large man with a cherubic face, looks far too young to play grizzled old Sweeney, but he still carries it off.

The character's supposed to have some years on him. After all, he's done a stretch in prison and he has a grown daughter, Johanna (played at LGA by high school sophomore Monica Music), whom he hasn't seen since she was a child. Tim Burton had to age Johnny Depp with a white shock of hair to turn him into the demon barber. With Strawbridge, there's no makeup hiding his youthful demeanor, but there is considerable vocal power and impressive physicality to create the illusion. His Sweeney starts out at the top of the first act as a defeated lump of flesh. But once he's been "adopted" by Mrs. Lovett, a half-mad pie-maker on the make, and then is reunited with his "friends," a set of gleaming straight razors, Strawbridge's Sweeney Todd becomes a force to be reckoned with. In the second act, he's a seething, leering leviathan of evil. It's weird how sexy he is the more homicidal he becomes.

The story behind Sweeney Todd comes from a popular 19th century British "penny dreadful," a type of pulp romance fiction that nowadays we equate with movies on the Lifetime channel and plotlines on daytime soaps. The String of Pearls: A Romance told of a barber who slit his enemies' throats and sent their bodies down a chute to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, where the corpses were ground into sausage, wrapped in pastry and sold to hungry customers. Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler based their musical on a play about Sweeney by Christopher Bond.

Sondheim created one of his juiciest scores for his take on the tale, every song brimming with clever lyrics and tongue-twisting rhymes. Like this run of words in "By the Sea," sung by Mrs. Lovett as she tries to seduce Mr. Todd: "With the sea at our gate, we'll have kippered herring/Wot have swum to us straight from the Straits of Bering!/Ev'ry night, in the kip, when we're through our kippers,/I'll be there slippin' off your slippers!"

Seeing every opportunity to get a laugh, and seizing it with both hands, Andi Allen acts Mrs. Lovett with spot-on comedy timing. Her singing's undercooked, though, with her voice sounding strained and whispery on opening night, rather like Helena Bonham Carter's in the Burton film. Un-mic'd, Allen was hard to hear in the small theater. (In shows at Uptown, she's belted at Ethel Merman volume.)

With her hair piled into a mess of peach-fuzzy curls, her face powdered floury white, Allen does look exactly right for the part. And she has quick chemistry with Strawbridge, even if her Mrs. Lovett is more a mother figure to his Sweeney than a potential paramour.

Other highlights: Swarner singing and acting the yearning of the lilting "Johanna"; young Randall Scott Carpenter bringing lovely drama to the score's best number, the ballad "Not While I'm Around"; and Michael B. Moore, playing rival barber Perelli, camping his face off in "The Contest" sequence.

Lowlights: a buzzing amplifier drowning out voices; the three-piece band, led by Adam C. Wright, losing tempo and hitting wrong notes; a lighting design better suited for a department store Christmas window; costumes that needed washing and ironing; an upstage curtain that appears dusty and rat-chewed; prop blood so pink it's anemic.

No money to pay an all-professional cast? Fine. Use what you've got. And this production features several fine performers doing excellent work in a done-on-a-shoestring staging. That they're surrounded by a less-than-grand supporting cast, and battling quirky tech flaws and design shortcomings — well, that's what keeps Level Ground Arts grounded firmly in community theaterland. Instead of a meaty Sweeney, they're content with serving hash.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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