Take the over-the-top drama of opera and the tragedy of Shakespeare and you’ve got “Sweeney Todd,” the Stephen Sondheim musical staged in daring fashion by Champlain Theatre.
Any production of “Sweeney Todd” is daring for a variety of reasons, one being its not-for-the-squeamish subject matter involving the tonsorial title character and his curious culinary choices. The production is also risky for any company taking it on because of the strong stamp put on Sondheim’s dark tale over the years, from the 1979 Broadway production featuring Angela Lansbury and Champlain Valley resident George Hearn to the 2005 Broadway revival and a film two years later by Tim Burton, a director who, like Sondheim, has a Hitchcockian predilection for harvesting humor from horror.
Kerry Noonan, a Hollywood veteran and Champlain College professor who steers the Champlain Theatre production, keeps the light-to-dark tone and energy high thanks in large part to smart casting at the top of the marquee. Champlain College junior Liam Callaghan makes Sweeney Todd menacing when he needs to be but sweeps him up in unsavory demonic joy when he and his partner in criminal cuisine hit upon their capital idea to make meat pies with a frightening twist.
That partner, pie-shop owner Mrs. Lovett, is played with tremendous comic timing by Margaret Garofalo, who has stolen scenes for Lyric Theatre and several other local stage companies over the years. At opening night Friday she managed to draw two laughs for every funny line, first when she contorted her face into an amusing set-up and again when she deliciously delivered her bon mot.
Garofalo and Callaghan bear the strongest voices among a vocally inconsistent cast, with some singers occasionally drowned out by the terrific five-member on-stage orchestra conducted by pianist Ashley O’Brien. A couple of Champlain College freshmen, Paul Turchinetz and Kristyn Stauffer, stand out for their charismatic performances, respectively, as the judge who inspires Sweeney Todd’s vengeance and the simple beggar woman who eventually and surprisingly figures greatly into the plot.
The sets are unobtrusive, consisting mostly of red half-walls with windows that in their austerity allow the audience to focus on the songs and the story. Noonan employs effective lighting, especially the flame-red glow emanating from behind the door where the nasty deeds are committed. Sometimes, though, the white lights at center stage are too bright for a musical that strives to set such an ominous tone.
If you go:
WHAT: “Sweeney Todd” by Champlain Theatre
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
WHERE: Champlain College Alumni Auditorium, 163 S. Willard St., Burlington
TICKETS: $10-$20; free for Champlain College students with ID. 865-5494,www.facebook.com/champtheatre