When you "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," to quote from Stephen Sondheim, you'll want to check your expectations at the door.
For Bay Street Theatre's new production of the well-oiled Sondheim musical (with book by Hugh Wheeler), director Jeff DeVincent has taken the murky and macabre story of "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" into bold new directions.
Oh, Sweeney's still set on revenge against the evil Judge Turpin, who sentenced him to 15 long years in an Australian prison on a trumped-up charge. The young lovers Anthony and Joanna are making eyes at one another. The Beggar Woman is a loony. Edwardian London is dark, diseased and decaying.
And of course Sweeney's still cutting the throat of whoever sits in his barber chair; his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, is still turning the corpses into delicious meat pies to sell to the unsuspecting citizenry.
And yes, it's still a musical.
DeVincent, who says his Sweeney is bloodier (and bawdier) than the vintage 1979 show's ever been, generally doesn't direct something unless it appeals to his admittedly left-of-center tastes and predilection for black humor. In recent years, the talented SCAD communications professor has helmed Avenue Q, Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Show and Urinetown The Musical on Savannah stages.
The small cabaret space at Club One gave him the opportunity to mold the broadly operatic Sweeney Todd for an intimate audience, to put the focus squarely on the quirky characters instead of the shadowy spectacle.
From one character to the next, he plays liberally with the idea of opposites — longtime Sweeney aficionados, and fans of the more recent Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie version, will each find less-than-subtle tweaks in this interpretation.
For another thing, DeVincent's angular set is based on the "skewed reality" of René Magritte's paintings. "They always maintain a truth," he says. "Every picture has some kind of truth to it, even though it's twisted."
The impressive cast includes 2013 Connect Best of Savannah winners Christopher Blair as the titular Todd, and Cecilia Arango as Mrs. Lovett. Leonard Rose (recently seen in Reefer Madness) plays young Toby, Mrs. Lovett's accomplice. George Moser is Judge Turpin, with Jack Wagner and Emily Coleman as Anthony and Joanna.
The bloody ball gets rolling when Sweeney and Anthony meet on the boat back to England; the young man falls in love with the lovely Joanna (who happens to be Sweeney's daughter), and the bitter old barber discovers that A, his wife is dead, and B, Mrs. Lovett still has his collection of sharpened silver shaving razors.
From there, the plot coagulates. And the storylines ... bleed into one another.
"I think everything about this is a super-mega love story," DeVincent says. "Mrs. Lovett keeps those blades, when she could have lived off of just one of them after Todd was taken away. She could have sold those blades. I think it's because she always wanted him. I see it as a series of out-of-control operatic love stories.
"Including one Sweeney has with the audience. The audience must love Sweeney; that's where I'm coming from. My goal was to have him so connect-able, from the very beginning, that the audience goes with him and wants him to do the deeds that he finally chooses to do out of desperation — where else does he turn? I want the audience to be there with him and connected with him."
Brandon Kauffman is the show's musical director; the choreography is by Courtney Flood.
The alternate reality of Sweeney Todd, DeVincent believes, is not so far removed from the real thing. Therefore, it's OK to laugh at the show's wickedly black humor, and to feel something for its otherwise reprehensible characters.
"At my parents' funerals, if not for my friends making me laugh, I would have gone insane," the director says. "And that's what Sweeney kind of accomplishes.
"There's a lot of insanity in this world that people just gotta smile and nod through. Sondheim just loves turning the mirror on us."
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Where: Bay Street Theatre at Club One, 1 Jefferson Street
When: At 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25
Tickets: $25 at sweeneysavannah.com
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