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Theatre Review: Carnegie's "Sweeney Todd" is Impressive

You’ve heard of Sweeney Todd but otherwise you don’t have a clue?
 
In The Carnegie’s impressive season opener, director Ken Jones doesn’t leave the audience in suspense. 
 
The musical begins with two long chutes front and center in a dirty and rundown factory district in Victorian London. Then neatly wrapped bodies come sliding down those chutes and onto the stage.
 
Ah -- Sweeney Todd is in the great tradition of Grand Guignol – the gruesome, and even horrible, as dramatic entertainment -- but with a so-modern sense of the ridiculous (courtesy of book writer Hugh Wheeler) and all set to a masterful score by Stephen Sondheim
 
In other words, a musical thriller for our times -- and a musical masterpiece performed deliciously by the principal cast led by Justin Glaser, a veteran of several Broadway tours, in the title role and sung wonderfully by the entire ensemble. 
 
 
The plot is pure penny dreadful, a favorite form of ‘literature’ in the 19th century century (and not coincidentally where Sweeney made his first appearance as “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”).
 
Sweeney was once the naïve Benjamin Barker, with beautiful and chaste young wife, Lucy, and a baby daughter. But evil Judge Turpin (the always terrific Michael Sherman) lusted after Lucy and had him deported. It’s fifteen years later and he’s returned, wanting revenge.
 
Stuff happens and Sweeney goes around the bend – it’s not just the villains but the inhabitants of a world filled with villainy that deserve to die. But what to do with all the bodies? Enter Mrs. Lovett (Helen Raymond-Goers), purveyor of the worst meat pies in London. Until she starts filling them with a tasty mystery meat.
 
Raymond-Goers, a top-notch local actress and singer, is a splendid foil and comic accomplice for Glaser, as Mrs. Lovett has deluded romantic dreams of a happy ending in store. 
 
Jones delivers a smart production, delivering laughs and chills like the best kind of funhouse, and always maintaining dramatic balance as the story spirals into murder and madness. 
 
Sondheim’s songs are intricate, so Jones sets much of the action at the front of the stage, so we can enjoy every note and every word. (Even so, if you aren’t familiar with the songs, go online and read some of the lyrics ahead of time, especially to “A Little Priest.”)
 
Equal credit to music director Jamey Strawn, who has created a spellbinding vocal ensemble for everything from lilting duets like “Pretty Women” to power-out, to the rafters chorales. Many of the chorus are students and recent grads of musical theater programs including University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, Northern Kentucky University, and Wright State – strongly suggesting if you don’t check out shows on area campuses you’re missing out. 
 
Two pianos accompanied the show and you can’t ask for better than Strawn and Steve Goers.
 
More things to like: Ben Biggers and Kaitlyn Sage play the young lovers (Oh, no! Will they fall victim to Sweeney’s sharp blade?!) and Sean Mette, another consistently strong performer, is Turpin’s conscienceless henchman.
 
You don’t see The Carnegie’s modest budget anywhere in Bruce Auerbach’s evocative Industrial Age scenic design (mentioned above) and Dean Walz’s period costumes. Sweeney’s make-up was too ghoulish, but Glaser is too young for the role. No doubt it was an effort to age him – but it’s up to acting not make-up to convey the state of Sweeney’s soul.
 
And while I got a kick out of the bodies coming down the chutes at the opening, I have to acknowledge that most of the audience didn’t know what to make of it.
 
Sweeney Todd, through Aug. 23, The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington. Tickets $21-$28, 859-491-2030 and www.thecarnegie.com.
 
Reviewed by Jackie Demaline, RCN contributor
 
Photo provided