Since its birth with Bat Boy in 2010, Slow Burn Theatre has been quick to embrace some of musical theater’s most challenging works. Its second show, for instance, was Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, and in 2012 the company returned to Sondheim’s influential body of work for a production of Into the Woods. But those two were mere warm-ups for Slow Burn’s new production of Sweeney Todd.
Created in 1979 by Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an immensely challenging work that has as much in common with opera as it does with musical theater. The Tony Award-winning piece has been given a John Doyle-directed Broadway revival in which the actors and the “orchestra” were one and the same. It has been produced all over the world, by major theater companies, opera companies and in concert versions. Tim Burton made a 2007 Sweeney Todd movie starring his male muse, Johnny Depp, and Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter.
One could be forgiven for wondering just how well the young Slow Burn, with its short rehearsal period, limited budget and non-union cast, would pull off a work as complex as Sweeney Todd. The short answer: surprisingly well.
Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater has a key asset in his fellow Slow Burn founder and co-artistic director, Matthew Korinko. A strong actor with a supple baritone voice, Korinko often plays leads in Slow Burn shows, but that’s not favoritism at work — it’s talent. More than once, Korinko has been the standard-setter in Slow Burn productions, and so it is with Sweeney Todd.
The actor plays the mad, tragic, vengeful barber with a mixture of fury and, when needed, a forced charm to disarm his soon-to-be victims. The way he lays out the reason for his character’s descent into madness, singing The Barber and His Wife, is haunting. His Pretty Women duet with Shawn Wayne King’s Judge Turpin, the architect of barber Benjamin Barker’s downfall (“Sweeney Todd” is a pseudonym), is one of the vocal high points of the show.
As Sweeney’s landlady, cohort and would-be Mrs., Karen Chandler doesn’t rise to Korinko’s level. She gets the crazy-funny part — after all, it’s Mrs. Lovett who dreams up the utilitarian idea of using Sweeney’s victims as filling for her substandard meat pies — but her voice is somewhat strident, except when she’s crooning Not While I’m Around to her slow but dangerous young helper Tobias (Bruno Vida).
Christian Vandepas and Kaela Antolino play returning sailor Anthony and Judge Turpin’s ward Johanna, who also happens to be the daughter Sweeney left behind when the corrupt judge shipped him off to Australia so that the jurist could have his way with the barber’s beautiful young wife Lucy. Vandepas has trouble with that difficult vocal leap at the beginning of Johanna, but he plays the smitten suitor well, and Antolino is a persuasive damsel in distress.
Ann Marie Olson as the mysterious, crazy Beggar Woman greatly enriches the show’s vocal palette. Sean Dorazio as Judge Turpin’s equally corrupt Beadle, Rick Peña as Sweeney’s rival Pirelli, the steampunk-style ensemble — Kaitlyn O’Neill, Courtney Poston, Daniella Newton, Rick Hvizdak, Christopher Mitchell and Michael Smith — and the principal actors make the opening and closing Ballad of Sweeney Todd a thunderous, chilling summation of the doom we witness.
Though Ian T.Ameida’s set is more utiliarian than inspired (it does have the requisite modified barber chair and body disposal chute), Peña’s steampunk costumes suggest the show’s 19th century setting. Lance Blank’s lighting, blood-red when the moment calls for that, is effective, as is Traci Almeida’s sound design (though softening Chandler wouldn’t hurt). Musical director Manny Schvartzman leads a six-piece band that does as well with Sondheim’s devilishly difficult score as Korinko does. All told, Sweeney Todd, which runs just one more weekend, is another impressive effort from Slow Burn.