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'SWEENEY TODD' LITE: TASTES GREAT, LESS CHILLING.

Byline: Evan Henerson

Theater Critic

It's rather astonishing what can be achieved when an imperiled virgin is given a cello.

Save your punch lines. Enacting the lusted-after ward Johanna, Lauren Molina plays that instrument quite adeptly, bow-ing away with a look of absolute rapture as gobstruck sailor Anthony Hope (played by Benjamin Magnuson) ascends to her window and promises, in lovely melody, "I'll steal you, Johanna."

OK, so there's no window. Molina's perched atop a raised coffin-shaped box, and Magnuson is serenading her while standing on a ladder. When his Hope-ful duties are dispatched, Magnuson plays the cello to accompany someone else's melody.

They all play instruments, lead murderers included. In Director John Doyle's reimagined crack at Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "Sweeney Todd," thrift and efficiency -- in performance and design -- take the place of near operatic gore and scenic excess. Same story and characters, but a very different look.

Changed or no, the Doyle "Sweeney" is still a bloody good time, even if it contains barely enough spatter to supply a single take in Tim Burton's 2007 film. "Sweeney" purists may pine for the multilevel sets, for Sweeney's all purpose sliding chair and pie-maker Mrs. Lovett's oven, but less is more here, and the director has ensured that voices and the characterizations are every bit intact.

Richer even. The fetid world of 19th-century London is shrunk to a single plank-lined set (designed by Doyle) with a high cabinet of curios and some functional props. The concept, Doyle has said, is an insane asylum with all of the players packed, in sardine-like, with a tale to recount.

Quite a story it is. Wronged barber Benjamin Barker (played by David Hess) returns to London as Sweeney Todd to seek revenge on the Judge (Keith Buterbaugh) who sent him to prison and stole his wife and daughter. Until he gets his opportunity, Todd begins slashing the throats of clientele, allowing his landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Judy Kaye), to improve her meat pies by baking in the remains of his victims. A side plot involves Anthony's quest to liberate Johanna before the Judge marries her.

Musical abilities aside, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's portrayers are well suited to this version. Hess is a strong baritone with a vaguely hangdog air about him, a Sweeney you wouldn't necessarily peg as a man about to snap.

Until, that is, he gets his hands on those razors, misses a key opportunity and then quickly goes bonkers over the course of the song "Epiphany." Other Sweeneys (Johnny Depp most notably) go for bombast. Hess' Sweeney is a stealth killer.

And Kaye's Mrs. Lovett is an ideal counterpoint. Playing as cockeyed -- and Cockney -- an optimist as musical theater will produce, Kaye lands her one-liners as deftly as she glides through twisty numbers like "The Worst Pies in London" and "By the Sea." Together Hess and Kaye make the first-act closing song, "A Little Priest" (concerning the future human contents of those pies), a gruesome delight. The song is about the only bit of playfulness Hess' Sweeney is permitted to actually enjoy.

The murders, when they start occurring, are achieved via a blast of red light (designed by Richard G. Jones) and a discordant whistle, with a chosen character (often Mrs Lovett) ladling red syrup into a bucket. A dispatched character then dons a red-stained white doctor's coat.

His work isn't done, of course, since there's still the score to finish. True, the victims of this vibrant "Sweeney" don't bleed. Thanks to the skills of Doyle's cast/orchestra, we don't see them sweat, either.

Evan Henerson (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson@dailynews.com

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - Three and one half stars

>Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

>When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; through April 6.

>Tickets: $30 to $85. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

>In a nutshell: There won't be much blood. There will be great performances.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

David Hess stars as wronged barber Benjamin Barker in a reimagined "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 6.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 14, 2008
Words:700
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