The origins of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, are shrouded in mystery and legend. It is unlikely that the famous murderer was ever a real person, as his supposed historical roots have been traced variously to 18th-century London, 17th-century Scotland and even 14th-century France. What is known for certain is that his saga was first introduced to the British public in 1846, via one of London's popular "penny-dreadfuls," weekly newspapers that featured romantic tales, news items, readers' letters and advice columns for a growing legion of loyal fans. In 1847, Sweeney's story was turned into a melodrama for London's theater audiences, and from then on versions of the lurid yarn of revenge, murder and cannibalism have become entrenched in the popular imagination.

American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim became acquainted with the tale on a visit to England in 1973, when he saw playwright Christopher Bond's treatment on an East End stage. In 1979, at the end of a most prolific decade — Sondheim's Company debuted in 1970, Follies in 1971, A Little Night Music in 1973 and the ground-breaking Pacific Overtures in 1976 — the team of Sondheim, his book writer Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince took on the Sweeney Todd legend and turned it into a lush, operatic morality play with a bold and adventurous score that revealed the sparkling brilliance of the composer's astonishing musical genius. The show swept the 1979 Tony and Drama Desk Awards, winning for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction, Best Actor (Len Cariou), Best Actress (Angela Lansbury) as well as a host of feature performance and design awards.

The task of adapting the atmospheric schema of the gritty, rapidly industrializing, lower-class London of the mid-19th century would be a daunting one even in a theater blessed with copious space and equipped with modern scenic contrivances and machinery. Yet, succeeding where lesser talents might have faltered, director Alan Bruun has met the challenge admirably with the use of moving screens, shadow projections, pen-and-ink drawings and stark lighting, giving Mad Cow Theatre's cramped and bare-bones Stage Left a gloomy, foreboding look.

But the proof of Sweeney Todd's pudding ultimately lies in the proficiency of the cast's vocal talents, and it is here where the Mad Cow production shines with splendid virtuosity. Whether it be a solo rendition or a fugue in multipart harmony, there is nary an off note delivered or a phrase missed by the inspired company, who are working from a script that is almost entirely sung.

Carrying the show are two charismatic and seasoned performers: Laura Hodos as the quick-thinking purveyor of pies, Mrs. Lovett, and Stephan Jones as Todd, the haunted ex-barber whose wrongful imprisonment and tortured life has bred within him a bitter yen for vengeance and retribution. Jones, in particular, turns in a powerfully moving performance, providing Todd with a sympathetic soul hardened by a profound disgust at the decayed humanity that surrounds him. Both partners in crime are blessed with rich singing voices and make their way through Sondheim's difficult score with aplomb.

Mad Cow Theatre
Through Oct. 22
(407) 297-8788

Other fine performances are provided by David Almeida as Perilli, Kane Prestenback as Tobias and Ron Schneider as Judge Turpin. Josh Eleazer and Meggin Weaver lend their sweet voices as the show's young lovers, Anthony and Johanna. The musical ensemble, led by Robin Jensen, is more than proficient, if sometimes a bit too loud for the intimate space.

Sondheim called his Sweeney Todd a musical thriller and, indeed, there are enough Grand Guignol theatrics and melodramatic plot twists to thrill any of the genre's aficionados. But it is Sondheim's singular musical talent, unequaled in any other time or place, that makes this show a sumptuous, enduring pleasure to behold.



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