If you have an opportunity to see Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "Sweeney Todd," take it. And try to sit a little left of center.
Of course, seats throughout this Oak Brook theater offer a fine vantage point from which to experience this grand, gloriously sung and altogether engrossing production from Director Rachel Rockwell and music Director Roberta Duchak.
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"Sweeney Todd"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. (630) 530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8:30 p.m. Friday; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 9
Running time: About two hours, 50 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $35-$46; lunch and dinner packages range from $49.75 to $68
Parking: Free lot and parking garage adjacent to the theater
Rating: For adults, contains violent subject matter and images
The exceptional performers who comprise Rockwell and Duchak's blue-chip ensemble play to all of them -- from the foot of the stage to the back of the house -- with all the fervor this Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler masterwork demands.
But left of center offers an especially revealing view of Kevin Depinet's shrewdly conceived streetscape: a sinister neighborhood whose deathly pale inhabitants peer from the shadows through hollowed eyes -- pierced by the occasional slash of light and bathed in ruby red -- created by lighting designer Jesse Klug.
The lower level of this two-story set recalls the entrance to a meat locker or walk-in freezer. It's appropriate in light of the service Sweeney provides to his neighbor and partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. But Depinet takes it further, extending the set diagonally upstage, where it disappears into a crimson-colored haze which suggests the road Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett tread leads to the very mouth of hell.
As visual metaphors go, this one is spot on. But it's only one reason to see Drury Lane's production of one of the all-time great musicals. There are many others, beginning with Sondheim's expressive, at times spine-tingling score. Then there are his evocative lyrics that range from poetic ("Pretty Women") and tender (Sweeney's "Johanna" reprise, which poignantly underscores a grisly business), to darkly satirical ("A Little Priest") and caustic (the recurring "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"). Ben Johnson conducts Drury Lane's small but mighty pit orchestra, which returns the grandeur to the musical whose last, notable local revival came three years ago courtesy of John Doyle's stripped-down 2005 Broadway revival -- a postmodern experiment that is a far cry from Drury Lane's full-on spectacle.
The musical centers on Benjamin Barker (robustly sung and played with a detached despair by Chicago native Gregg Edelmann), a London barber sent to prison on a trumped-up charge who returns 15 years later to find his beloved wife dead and his daughter Johanna (Emily Rohm) the ward of the corrupt Judge Turpin, played with practiced menace by Kevin Gudahl, who sent Barker away. Vowing vengeance on the judge and his henchman Beadle Bamford (pristinely sung by counter tenor George Andrew Wolf), Barker re-christens himself Sweeney Todd and with help from Mrs. Lovett (superbly sung by Liz McCartney, who has a canny comedic timing), a meat pie maven who's fallen on hard times, he resumes his former career. Except now, Sweeney wields a deadly razor. The carnage he creates does little to soothe his murderous instincts, but it does wonders for Mrs. Lovett, whose business booms thanks to a now endless supply of fresh meat.
Caught up in the mayhem is the trusting Tobias, a shop boy played by an actual kid, the very poised Jonah Rawitz of Buffalo Grove. William Travis Taylor plays Anthony, the lovestruck sailor determined to spirit Johanna away, and George Keating delivers a gleefully oily turn as the shyster barber Adolfo Pirelli, a Sweeney apprentice looking to blackmail his former boss. Rounding out the cast is Heidi Kettenring, who plays the half-crazed Beggar Woman in what is the most perceptive, heartbreaking performance of this character I have ever seen.
Much of the heavy lifting falls to Edelman and McCartney, who make some interesting, highly successful choices. For that matter, so does Rockwell, who eases tension by making prominent the show's dark comedy but does so without sacrificing its requisite chills.
McCartney is a formidable vocal presence with a crackerjack comedic touch. She also brings a kind of humor and a softness not often seen in Mrs. Lovett. McCartney's duet with Rawitz is absolutely guileless, downright maternal even. You you can see it in her expression, which makes her betrayal all the more disturbing. And yet, one knows that for Nellie Lovett, self-preservation will always trump sentiment.
Then there's Edelman, whose Sweeney initially seems more weary than determinedly vengeful (rakish grin notwithstanding). His is a less explosive, more distant and preoccupied Sweeney: a murderer who is himself already dead inside.
"Sweeney Todd" is not to everyone's taste. It's a gritty tale about madness that results from uncontrolled lust, greed, or an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. Yet, its poetry and its magnificent musicality deserve to be savored. Having served up a similar theatrical feast last year when they collaborated on Drury Lane's award-winning "Ragtime," Rockwell and Duchak know how to flavor this prime piece of theater.