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‘Sweeney Todd’ at Porchlight: Indulge yourself with the best meat pie in Chicago; it’s deep dish

Submitted by on Oct 22, 2014 – 9:25 pm

An inspired Mrs. Lovett (Rebecca Finnegan) invites Sweeney Todd (David Girolmo) to try a meat pie made of priest. (Brandon Dahlquist)“Sweeney Todd” by Stephen Sondheim, presented by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, extended through Nov. 16. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The demon barber of Fleet Street is a bad one, that’s for sure; and Porchlight Music Theatre has a good one in David Girolmo. But the crucial ingredient of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical is that demonic purveyor of meat pies, Mrs. Lovett – and in Rebecca Finnegan, Porchlight boasts a beaut. 

Sweeney Todd (David Girolmo) unleashes his razor on unsuspecting customers. (Brandon Dahlquist)Finnegan is like a slice of crusted priest: She’s simply too good, the tastiest tidbit in a smorgasbord of dark delights in an edgy, funny, thoroughly musical production that should go to the top of your don’t-miss list.

Yet this deliciously disingenuous Mrs. Lovett and the vengeful Todd are only the beginning of a smartly cast show filled with performances memorable no less for their intensity than for their stagecraft. Sitting at ringside in the intimate venue of Stage 773 is a heady experience. While the sense of immediacy is electric, it comes with a distinct titillation of unease — like riding on a giant roller-coaster.

Girolmo cuts an imposing Sweeney Todd, an erstwhile barber returned from exile years after a lustful judge dispatched him in order to gain access to his beautiful wife. He has clawed his way back to London with a single purpose: bloody retribution. But what begins in narrow focus soon broadens into wholesale slaughter, with a little help from the practical-minded Mrs. Lovett.

Recognizing the bedraggled Todd and offering him shelter, the sensible business woman spots, well, capital goods in the first corpse Sweeney creates. Meat being hard to get and all, and the local population of pussy cats having been pretty well depleted by the competition, it just seems so obvious when  you think about it. And so the angry barber and the visionary pie vendor find themselves in partnership.

It's love at first sight for Johanna (Stephanie Stockstill) and Anthony Hope (Brian Acker). (Brandon Dahlquist)But while Mrs. Lovett goes for the brass ring of new means and comforts, and imagines an even closer union with Sweeney, he never takes his eye off the prize – the death of both the loathsome Judge Turpin (played with arch superiority by Edward J. MacLennan) and his corrupt ally, the Beadle Bamford (done to an oily T by Matthias Austin).

Talk about cleaning up real good, MacLennan’s Todd undergoes such a transformation from his first disheveled appearance, just off the boat, that it takes a moment to recognize him as the same man. I suppose it’s the barber’s completely shorn pate. Yet Girolmo never loses his menace, even when it’s veiled behind a smile. It’s there in his robustly voiced song to his old razors (preserved for him by Mrs. Lovett) and in his ironic duet “Pretty Women” with MacLennan’s smug judge.

Mrs. Lovett (Rebecca Finnegan) listens as the prying Beadle Bamford (Matthias Austin) plays an old favorite. (Brandon Dahlquist)Through it all, though, you can’t take your eyes off Finnegan’s high-spirited, subtly conniving Mrs. Lovett. Her flashing eyes and infinitely expressive face respond to and accentuate every scene, indeed every inflection in anyone around her. And she’s a splendid, wise singer. In “A Little Priest,” Mrs. Lovett’s pivotal duet with Todd, Finnegan embroiders her sparkling vocal performance with myriad tiny flourishes of irony, all delivered with impeccable comic precision.

This well-coached show benefits everywhere from the work of stage director Michael Weber, musical director Doug Peck and choreographer Dina DiCostanzo. Ensemble numbers are tight, energetic and smartly sung; each face seems to have not just its own persona, but its own story. And when characters emerge from the crowd, they bring real presence and solid voices that can manage Sondheim’s deceptively demanding music.

Mrs. Lovett (Rebecca Finnegan) comforts Toby (Miles Blim) in 'Sweeney Todd.' (Brandon Dahlquist)Brian Acker and Stephanie Stockstill make an appealing match as the young seaman Anthony Hope and his beloved Johanna, Todd’s daughter immured since infancy by the perverse judge. Kevin Webb offers a fascinating take – or perhaps fake — as Pirelli, the charlatan barber with an Italian accent who unwittingly puts Todd into business. But the sleeper performance is Miles Blim’s beautifully sung Toby, the simple boy who, like some Shakespearean fool, grasps what no else can see.

Just as Porchlight’s “Sweeney Todd” is a triumph of ensemble and staging, it also parades prize-worthy achievements in Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s efficient multi-level set design, Bill Morey’s rags-and-riches costumes and the imaginative lighting scheme devised by Greg Hofmann and Jess Goings. It’s the stuff of a demonic thriller that grabs you by the throat. And it’s razor sharp.

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