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Bloody good show

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This reviewer recently read an article on io9.com contending that the basis of some of the best horror films and TV shows is grief, and “Sweeney Todd,” now at the BroadHollow Theatre under the brilliant direction of Laura Wallace-Rhodes, is no exception. Grief and revenge are what drive our hero — if he can be called that — to claw his way back from Botany Bay to London and wreak havoc on the men who destroyed his family.

The musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — natch — takes place in London at the end of the 19th Century. It’s depicted as a place of violence, cruelty and squalor whose citizens seem forever on the edge of madness. Brian Howard’s dark set, luridly lit by Meghan Santelli, looks like it’s made of distressed wood polluted by bird droppings, and the evening opens with a blood-spattered sheet hanging from the flies.

The story, for those who don’t know, is this: A barber who’s renamed himself Sweeney Todd was framed by a judge and his beadle (played with delicious hatefulness by Matt Langen and Sandro Scenga) and sent off to a prison colony. The judge and the beadle seemed to have done this out of sheer meanness and the fact that the judge had his eye on the barber’s pretty wife, played briefly and fetchingly by Jenna Kavaler.

Anyway, after about 15 years the barber returns and sets up shop above the shop of Mrs. Lovett, who makes meat pies that even she admits are awful. (“The Worst Pies in London.”) Though Sweeney is really out to get the beadle and the judge, whom he learns has become the guardian of his now-teenage daughter, he starts by practicing on unsuspecting customers who have come for a shave and some leechcraft. To be blunt, he cuts their throats with his gleaming straight razor, and Mrs. Lovett bakes the dead bodies into pies — this is her idea. (“A Little Priest.”)

This cannot turn out well.

The BroadHollow is known for its big, enjoyable productions, but Wallace-Rhodes’ cast is uncommonly good. Dressed in period costumes designed by the talented Sheri Kfare, they open and close the show with numbers (“Prelude” and “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,”) where they drag around and stare at the audience as vacantly as the ghouls in the “Thriller” video; kudos to choreographer Kevin Wallace.

Amazingly, Chris Dufrenoy was a last-minute replacement as Sweeney Todd, who’s usually played by Donald J. Dowdell. Dufrenoy’s performance as the aggrieved and vengeful barber was amazing, as was his deep baritone singing.

The ever-brilliant Jennifer Hope is fantastic as Mrs. Lovett, and she makes the audience care for her despite the enormity of her greed; unlike Sweeney, she does what she does for reasons largely mercenary, as her new and improved meat pies sell like nobody’s business. Hope’s lovely, ringing voice was on full display, and she’s capable of a blood curdling shriek when what happens to her finally happens.

Christina Stango is both creepy and poignant as the beggar with a shocking secret, and Samuel Adam is also outstanding as Tobias, one of the play’s few innocents. Poor Toby starts out as a shill for Sweeney’s faux-Italian rival and ends up working for Mrs. Lovett. His love for her is guileless, total, undeserved, and costs him dearly.

Mario Castro is also good as both the rival barber and Mr. Fogg, proprietor of the local bughouse.

Another innocent is Anthony (Keith Panzarella), who falls in love with Sweeney’s equally innocent and frankly stupid daughter Johanna (Marisa Giacalone) and plots to steal her away from the ghastly judge, who wants — good heavens! — to marry her and legitimize his lust.

Langen is repellent as the judge but not as despicable as Scenga’s beadle, who brutalizes his inferiors and sucks up to the judge at every opportunity. The rest of the cast is also superlative, and there’s a live band led by Gary Eisele. The background music is subtle and atmospheric.

“Sweeney Todd” is a disturbing, splendiferous, skin-crawlingly good show.

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