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MTG's Sweeney Todd is delightfully gruesome

SWEENEY TODD:

THE DEMON BARBER

OF FLEET STREET

The MIT Musical Theater Guild.

Directed by Tarik Alkasab.

Starring Michael G. Friedhoff '90,

Jeanette Ryan, Daniel Aalberts G,

and Deborah Wrighton.

Kresge Little Theatre, Sep. 5-7

and Sep. 12-14, 8 pm.

By ELAINE McCORMICK

THE MUSICAL THEATER GUILD opened its fall season with Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a morbid, but intriguing, tale about Todd, the fastest, closest shaver in all of London (and not a bad murderer either), and his delightfully amoral landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who turns Todd's victims into luscious meat pies.

The musical opens with Todd (Michael G. Friedhoff '90), who has just returned from 15 years in Australia after having been deported for life on a trumped-up charge by Judge Turpin (David Harrison), who had the hots for Todd's wife. Following Todd's deportation, his wife took poison, so the judge claimed the daughter, Johanna (Deborah Wrighton) for his own, first as his ward, but later as his wife (or so he hoped). The judge kept Johanna, a classic innocent girl in a white dress, locked up in his house. However, he didn't plan on Anthony (Daniel Aalberts G), a sailor, who spies her as she waters the flowers in her window box, singing like a canary in a cage, and plots to steal her away.

Meanwhile, Todd finds lodging with Mrs. Lovett (Jeanette Ryan) in the room over her shop, where she sells, as even she admits, "the worst pies in London." During the Dickensian hard times, with meat scarce, prices high, and even cats and dogs no longer easy to come by, Mrs. Lovett is hard pressed to find anything to put in her pies besides crust.

When Todd starts collecting a surfeit of dead bodies, which he has murdered after carefully shaving them clean, they simply set up a slide connecting the barber shop and the bakery kitchen, acquire a meat grinder that can handle human flesh, and suddenly Mrs. Lovett finds her pie shop quite popular. Originally, Todd only intended to kill two men, the beadle and the daughter-stealing judge, but as the musical progresses, he gets a little carried away and ends up killing more than ten. Mrs. Lovett, a practical, endearing soul, is not concerned; the extra bodies, which help her pie business boom, easily turn into cash.

Todd's motives are easy to understand: he has a wrong to revenge. But Mrs.

Lovett merely runs her business, making do with what she has. The way Ryan plays her with a complete lack of remorse is absolutely charming. However, it's Friedhoff, besides having the funniest bio in the program ("They say that a car is stolen in Boston every ten minutes. That car belongs to Mike."), who carries the show. He plays Todd with an ease and self-assurance that is quite impressive. He has a strong voice in his solos and yet blends well during duets, such as in "Pretty Women" with Judge Turpin. And it's with obvious relish that he and Ryan share one of the punniest musical duets every written: "A Little Priest." In this macabre but hilarious set piece, they discuss the relative qualities of various tradesmen when incorporated into pies, concluding that sailor is too salty, politician is oily, but "everyone goes down well with beer."

All of the characters have solos in which they shine, especially the Beggar Woman (Deborah Kreuze '91), with her outstanding voice and impeccable timing, and the Beadle (Courtney Furno) with his rich, smooth tenor. But Sweeney Todd also has its less great moments. Pie shop helper Tobias' (Janet Licini '92) solo, "Not While I'm Around," despite her clear, sweet voice, is long and somewhat tedious. The duet between Mrs. Lovett and the Beggar Woman, "Wait," also seems to last longer than the time it takes to sing. The chorus' songs are uneven in quality, some excellent, and some, well, not so excellent.

Also, since the chorus, as the ghosts of Todd's victims, is painted in greenish-gray makeup and tends to stare stonily, their scenes have a morbid, heavy tone, which is somewhat deadening. The orchestra, when it isn't playing too loudly, drowning out chunks of the women's solos, plays upsettingly out of tune. However, since the score is extremely dissonant and syncopated, there is a reassuring element of mystery as to how off the orchestra really is.

The set, composed of rusty gas barrels, broken air conditioners, bent car grilles and odd pieces of rope, has a low-rent Dadaist look to it. Unfortunately, the large metal objects take up quite a bit of space, leaving the remaining acting area somewhat cramped and constrained. When the 20-member cast is all on stage, they can barely move. Dancing is impossible.

Despite the flaws, if you're in the mood for a ghoulish, but witty, musical, Sweeney Todd is good to see. You don't walk out of the theater whistling the songs, but the scenes stay with you. And you'll think about it the next time you bite into a hot dog.