THEATER REVIEW: Moonlight stages a sensational “Sweeney Todd”

"Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." -- Attributed to Confucius

Sweeney Todd (Robert J. Townsend), “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” has a chip on his shoulder the size of Judge Turpin (Randall Dodge).

Fifteen years ago, Turpin raped Todd’s wife Lucy and sent Todd to the slammer in Australia on trumped-up charges. Now Todd is back in London to find his young daughter Johanna and exact his revenge.

Sweeney goes to see Mrs. Lovett (Bets Malone), who recognizes him as Benjamin Barker, victim of Judge Turpin’s wrath. She has saved his set of razors and offers the space above hers, where he can set up shop again.

Based on a 19th-century story, “Sweeney” is a dark and bloody tale of revenge, death and insanity enlivened with a love story and a cooking discovery for Mrs. Lovett (Bets Malone), who makes “The Worst Pies in London” until she gets a better recipe and a handy supplier.

Stephen Sondheim’s dingy musical melodrama “Sweeney Todd” plays through Oct. 6 at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre. The excellent direction and musical staging are in the hands of Moonlight’s incoming artistic director, Steven Glaudini.

Everything about this production is big – the voices, the playing area, the orchestra and the attitude. Even the makeup is extreme – that spectral goth look, with heavy black around the eyes and pale white faces.

Townsend plays Sweeney with a monomaniacal determination that softens only when he thinks of his wife and Johanna. The loss of family and those 15 wasted years have taken their toll, but there is still an occasional hint of the man he might have been.

Malone has the chops for Mrs. Lovett, a comic but cold figure whose heart is only touched by the young Tobias Ragg (Jordan Aragon), who becomes an apprentice. Malone’s voice has a bit too much screech for my taste; I can defend the interpretation but would have preferred a bit more musicality.

Todd returns to London with a young sailor named Anthony Hope, played brilliantly by Anthony Carillo. It is Anthony who finds Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, a captive in Judge Turpin’s house, and falls in love with her. Joanna Holliman is touching and sweet as Johanna; she also has a lovely voice.

The heavy here is Judge Turpin, a role Randall Dodge seizes on and plays to the hilt. Even the sleaze is giant-sized here. Jason W. Webb nearly matches Turpin in – shall I say it? – turpitude as Beadle.

Jason Maddy is hilarious as snake oil salesman Pirelli, and Jessica Bernard is heartbreaking as the Beggar Woman with a secret.

Let’s face it, “Sweeney Todd” isn’t your typical light, fluffy musical; it’s about a mass murderer. The score shows Sondheim at his most operatic (but least melodic). Much of the dialogue is handled musically. This is problematic, because Sondheim’s proclivity for cramming as many syllables as possible into each bar of music presents a nearly insurmountable challenge for the singers.

Props to musical director Elan McMahan for attempting to make these lyrics understood, but my advice is to read them before you go. But the sound of the 22-person orchestra is magnificent.

Kudos to Jean-Yves Tessier for his evocative lighting and to Chris Luessman’s sound design (though the night I was there, the sound was set too high, and I could have done with fewer loud whistle blasts).

The large industrial-look set features projections of London during the late 19th century. Central to the set is a large reversible piece for Mrs Lovett’s shop and Todd’s barbershop. Turning this piece requires several men, who become part of the set, standing motionless, leaning against the set while awaiting their cue.

Sweeney Todd, the character, is difficult to like, but Moonlight’s production of “Sweeney Todd,” the musical, is one of the best you’ll see.

The details

“Sweeney Todd” plays through Oct. 6 at Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

Sept. 26-29 and Oct. 4-6 at 7:30 pm.

For tickets, call 760-724-2110 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.