The stage is black. Idle chatter from the audience immediately dies down as an eerie organ solo begins, a haunting tone promptly established. Two men gradually appear on opposite ends of the stage, as deep bass begins to describe the tale of a certain ominous barber. After a couple of lines, the stage is suddenly flooded with white light, illuminating a row of ghostly silhouettes. Perhaps even more ghostly, though, is the immediate onslaught of music, jarring harmonies demanding the audience do one thing and one thing only: attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
So begins Olney Theatre Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony award-winning musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Led by director Jason Loewith, Sondheim’s classic horror about a murderous barber and his morally repugnant accomplice carved out a solid place on the Olney Theatre’s mainstage. With an incredibly talented cast fronted by Olney newcomers David Benoit and E. Faye Butler as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, respectively, the production proved to be a well-earned success.
While each member of the cast managed to produce quality performances, two main actors definitely stood out. The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Butler in her role as Mrs. Lovett. Butler not only brought the vivaciousness typically expected of Mrs. Lovett to life, but also managed to make the character entirely her own through an incredibly sassy and sharp-witted personality. Unlike with her murder-driven counterpart, it was hard to find any true fault in anything Butler’s Lovett did, even when she hatched up the idea to fill her failing meat pies with actual human flesh.
The other, more surprising standout was Michael J. Mainwaring as Tobias. Mainwaring’s use of quirky and childish body movements to embody the role of the young boy was particularly amusing to watch, especially during his first solo in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” His shining moment occurred during the heartfelt promise of “Not While I’m Around,” his impressively strong tenor clearly carrying the duet between himself and Butler.
Perhaps even more impressive than the individual performers was how well the ensemble worked together. Each and every movement was in sync and deliberate, with not a single step out of place. The intensity of the choir was oftentimes more moving than the individually sung lines, particularly because it highlighted the extreme dissonance in which Sondheim’s music thrives. In some ways, the opening and ending songs of the show, each entitled “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” were the most spectacular, paying tribute to an ensemble whose combined vocal talent was absolutely breathtaking.
This is not to say the show was perfect. Although there were multiple stellar moments in the show, as a whole the production failed to truly entrap viewers in its story. On several occasions, the intensity of a moment seemed to build and grow, yet never fully hit the point of emotional release. The performers were so focused on the complexity of the music; hitting all the right notes and rhythms required by Sondheim is no easy feat, and it would make sense the actual acting would take a hit when performers are so invested in the music. Another reason could be the literal length of the show. With the show itself tapping out at roughly three hours, taking the time to fully experience a moment might have been sacrificed in order to shorten the run time. It’s a minor yet important critique, and when discussing the musical with my guest, I felt he put it best: The story was logically intense, but we as audience members didn’t really feel the intensity.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is playing at the Olney Theater Center’s mainstage until March 5. Tickets start at $38 and can be purchased at olneytheatre.org.