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'Sweeney Todd' is terrible, terrifying and incredible

Oregon Cabaret Theatre pulls out all the strops for Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Musical Thriller.” This razor sharp production opened last week to screams of fear, madness and not a few cackles.

A Fleet Street barber, Benjamin Barker, is falsely convicted and sent to Australia so that Judge Turpin can have his way with Barker’s wife and steal their beautiful babe. Mrs. Lovett holds a flame for Barker, and when he returns they set up in a grisly business and Sweeney Todd is born. It’s a splendidly gruesome tale from the grimy annals of old London, a tale of obsession and revenge and love and death.

Valerie Rachel and Galloway Stevens have the leads, Rachel as Mrs. Lovett and Stevens as Barker, reinvented as Sweeney Todd. There’s never a more dastardly couple you’ll meet than these two. Rachel, Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s artistic director, is rarely seen on stage, and it’s a pity because she’s marvelous. In the guise of a poor pie maker, Rachel cycles between loving docility, ingenious macabre comedy and compressed manic speech, her words washing over and mingling with Galloway’s. Their duet at the end of the first act, “A Little Priest,” says it all as they savor the taste and flavors of lawyers, doctors, accountants and shopkeepers all baked into pies, each line a rhyming quip of anticipation.

Galloway as Sweeney Todd is sometimes as manic but is more often tormented and depressed, distracted by dreams of slaughter rather than Mrs. Lovett’s beseeching laments of love. His natural strength and powerful voice fill the theater with rage, regret and murder, “there’s a hole in the world and it’s filled with s---!” he chants.

Sweeney Todd strops the blade, a gritty sound in the silence, and holds up that blade to glint in the dim light “soon drip ruby, precious rubies,” Galloway croons. And the audience leans back in their chairs, uneasy, anxious.

Calling out a couple of the characters, Nathan Monks is truly cast as Beadle Bamforth. Monks is round-faced and bulky and when garbed in bowler and frock coat is physically imposing and really, really scary. Monk’s fresh demeanor and giddy excitement at getting a face massage is wholly belied by his casual and dispassionate violence.

James Smith is a delightful Adolfo Pirelli, exaggerated and inflated with Italian bombast, clothed and mustachioed to the tips of his two-toned, pointy footwear. Pirelli is the first to go (need I explain how?), and I was sorry that this character was so short-lived, but Smith continues as effectively though very differently in the ensemble. Michael Spencer is Tobias Ragg, an East End ragamuffin and Spencer’s diminished self, cringing fear and abasement in the role is text book, particularly when he’s driven to some vacant, remote place of mind, grinding sausage as he blanks out the immensity of crime that surrounds him.

Kirsten Calvin is a beggar woman, hollow-eyed and peculiar, with a secret concealed in her misery. The beggar woman is a wraith that calls for pity and alms and then transforms herself with a violent, sexual screeching dance, her petticoats revealed, her lunacy exposed. Calvin continues to impress Rogue Valley playgoers with the depth and range of her performance.

OCT founder and legendary set designer Craig Hudson returns to Oregon Cabaret Theatre for “Sweeney Todd.” The theater’s tall space is reconstructed into a dark hovel, the barber shop above and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop below, and the sewers below even that. A rickety stair step joins the two stages, creaking in protest. That barber’s chair too joins the two stages, sending its victims to a fiery hell.

The set’s surfaces are detailed and textured, so Chris Wood’s lighting picks up the angles and shadows the stage. Spotlights are brilliant, bloody red when the razor is out or when tempers fly into the unconscious dimensions of lunatic revenge, and a hot blue to distance and dismay the audience.

Moving from comic to absolutely grim, a blast siren signals a full stop for all characters, and then the Sweeney Todd refrain begins. Dense fog swirls about the set, wrapping its dark tendrils about the heads and limbs of the ensemble as they shriek the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street and freeze, hands held high, in worship of the blade. In these moments, the ensemble is terrible, terrifying and incredible.

“Sweeney Todd’s” ending shall remain undisclosed but is a screaming bloody mess that will leave you stunned in horror at the scene and in complete admiration for the show.

“Sweeney Todd,” directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, continues through Nov. 10 at OCT, at the corner of First and Hargadine streets in Ashland. The show runs about two and a half hours with a 20-minute break. For tickets or more information, see OregonCabaret.com or call the box office at 541-488-2902.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

photo by Christopher Briscoe All photos are by Christopher Briscoe. Galloway Stevens, center, as Sweeney Todd and Valerie Rachelle, middle right, as Mrs. Lovett in the Oregon Cabaret Theatre production of "Sweeney Todd."