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When Barbers Attack

Glinting Blades and Devilish Grins in MTG’s ‘Sweeney Todd’

By Nivair H. Gabriel
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR

MIT Musical Theater Guild

Kresge Little Theatre

Sept. 9–10, 15–17 at 8 p.m.

Produced by Todd Radford G

Directed by Daniel J. Katz ’03

With Aaron P. Moronez ’04, Noelani K.N.B. Kamelamela ’05, Matthew N. Stern ’08

$6 MIT/Wellesley students; $8 MIT faculty & staff, senior citizens, students;

$10 general public; $3 new MIT students

Seeing “Sweeney Todd” without knowing the plot beforehand is like plunging headfirst into a Wizard of Oz-esque tornado, a surprising whirlwind of the macabre and filth of 19th-century London. Every new twist causes a gasp, as the show crosses the line between suspenseful horror and a ridiculous bloodbath.

While this musical offers many surprises, however, it creates little suspense. At the beginning of the show, the former life of the demon barber is a subject of curiosity, but the background story is revealed too quickly. Cursed with having a beautiful wife, barber Sweeney Todd loses her and his daughter to a sexually sadistic judge who exiles him for life. Fifteen years later, a handsome and bright-eyed sailor returns him to London, and he seeks his revenge. This, along with several subplots, becomes clear in the early minutes of the show. The only real questions the audience can have are, “How’s he gonna kill him?” and “When’s he gonna seduce her?”

What Sondheim’s script lacks in edge-of-your-seat anxiety, the Musical Theatre Guild makes up for with commendable acting and well-developed vocal talent. The romantic subplot, predictable and boring in any other show, is a joy to watch because of the sweetness and energy that Matthew N. Stern ’08, who plays Anthony, and Lauren Bakis, who plays Johanna, bring to the stage. Kristin Hughes transforms Sweeney’s fellow demon Mrs. Lovett from a plain accomplice into a sympathetic auntie type who turns toward evil only at the jarring end.

“Sweeney” is peppered with MTG-ers who have fallen headfirst into their characters. Timothy I. Abrahamsen ’06 as Tobias, David M. Zych ’00 as Adolfo Pirelli, and Aaron P. Moronez ’04 — a particularly tortured Sweeney — all deliver performances that clearly rank among their best, and the rest of the cast is not far behind. The one the audience immediately warms is Noelani K.N.B. Kamelamela ’05, who plays the Beggar Woman, and whose voice, posture, and indefatigable power make her the most pivotal character in all of London, and certainly in this musical.

The five-member orchestra is every bit a match for the strong voices, and thankfully the sound crew maintains the perfect balance. Everything is just the right volume level, and the spooky tunes color the stage almost as well as the fantastic lights.

Sondheim clearly understood the power of noise; his score alternates appropriately between characteristic organ imitation and standard musical fare. The most bone-chilling part of “Sweeney,” however, is enduring the hellish and ear-straining screams of the children at the insane asylum. In fact, the only time when Sondheim’s music fails is “God, That’s Good!” — garbled improvisations sung in synchrony do not work, and the pacing can confuse the actors.

“God, That’s Good!” serves as the obligatory nod to cannibalism, which fits in perfectly with the other elements of “Sweeney”: bad sanitation, dresses with humps, vampy makeup, church bells, aprons, rats, and sensational scandal — the dresses and aprons make for a fitting mood. Costume designer Holly B. Laird ’07 is responsible for the most impressive costumes this reviewer has ever seen from MTG.

The grey chains hanging off most of the outfits complement the machine-dominated set devised by Director Daniel J. Katz ’03. Grimy pipes appear everywhere, and in the first act, shadowy gears hide the oven where so much human meat is baked — just as a small box covers the murder weapon’s introduction for a thrilling minute. The interpretation works, and the best part is watching what happens in the meat grinder every time another barbershop customer is murdered.

Not for the squeamish nor for the serious, this festival of dark puns and shocking depravity actually fosters laughs and entertainment. Seeing “Sweeney Todd” for the first time is exhilarating and gleefully gross, but a second viewing of MTG’s enthusiastic production can only create more enjoyment.