Lean and meaty

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The word musical normally connotes light fare. But in its latest Broadway reincarnation, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street lends, in addition to bravura performances, a bracingly morbid bite to American Conservatory Theater’s new season.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Sweeney from delivering vigorous entertainment. Director-designer John Doyle’s attractively reconceived, Tony Award–winning revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical serves up a theatrical feast from, yes, soup to nuts. And it does so with a cost-effective ingenuity that would no doubt impress the economizing baker–cannibal maker Mrs. Lovett (played with inviting brio by Broadway vet Judy Kaye).

Kicking off a national tour in San Francisco, the show’s impressive cast members, drawn overwhelmingly from the 2006 Broadway run, not only act and sing beautifully but also (in what has become a trademark of Doyle’s work in the UK and on Broadway) play all of the instruments themselves. Using brilliantly pared-down orchestrations by Sarah Travis (who also collected a Tony for her effort), Doyle and his cast render Sondheim’s exquisite score an even more integral part of the drama.

To "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," the drama follows a disturbed barber formerly known as Barker (a memorable David Hess), who returns to Victorian London after 15 years’ penal servitude in Australia on trumped-up charges engineered by Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh), who fancied the barber’s beautiful young wife, subsequently raped her, and now keeps Barker’s daughter, Johanna (Lauren Molina), as his ward. Seeking a room to rent under his new name, Sweeney Todd, the barber finds a garrulous but incompetent pie seller named Mrs. Lovett and befriends her after she breaks the news that his wife committed suicide in the wake of Judge Turpin’s conquest and (clearly smitten as well as sympathetic toward the anguished Sweeney) agrees to help him seek revenge.

Meanwhile, Anthony Hope (Benjamin Magnuson), a young man returning to London at the same time as Sweeney but in the optimistic mood reflected by his name, meets and falls in love with Johanna, only to become the rival of the judge, who has determined to marry her himself. With motives nearly as straight as his razor (the revenge plot soon spirals out of control, taking in all of the inhabitants of his detested London), Sweeney dispatches his victims with a single flourish across their throats — a gesture that in Doyle’s production invariably evokes a single piping wail of woodwind as the lights go red over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop (done up with deftly augmented plank-board modesty in his striking scenic design), and the victim, after an expressionless pause, dons the blood-streaked apron symbolizing his or her quick passage from palpitating body to lifeless flesh. That’s flesh that the enterprising Mrs. Lovett eagerly bakes into her publicly traded treats, to great repute and profit. (Adding a further Grand Guignol touch, Mrs. Lovett simultaneously occupies herself downstage at such moments in slowly draining blood from a bucket; the attendant noise, as the liquid hits the pan, produces a choice chill in the bone.)

Musically, those opening lines calling the audience to "attend" use a terse melody and a staccato rhythm that wind their way throughout Sondheim’s complex and beguiling score and devilishly clever lyrics. Along the way come passages that, under the circumstances, take one by surprise with their easy, slightly ribald charm (as in Mrs. Lovett’s good-natured confession, "The Worst Pies in London") or their breathtaking gentleness and grace (as in Anthony’s love song, "Johanna," later snatched up by his rival, who lends its lilt a sinister echo).

Hess’s turn in the title role, as the broken husband and father turned cracked serial killer, projects an imposing, warily sympathetic combination of the addled, the fierce, and the weary. Sweeney is at once a towering and a stooped presence, with a somber masculine charisma that commands our undivided attention whenever he’s onstage. That is, except when he shares the spotlight with Kaye’s lovably insouciant (if that word can be used for a woman who bakes people into pies) Mrs. Lovett. Then Sweeney and the audience have together found an ideal match.

It’s all over much too soon, but it leaves a memorable aftertaste that keeps on giving. Which just goes to show what really makes a great piece of musical theater. A great story? A great composer? The answer is both more general and more particular: it’s people!*

SWEENEY TODD

Extended through Oct. 14, $22–$82

See stage listings for schedule

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228

www.act-sf.org