Even given the knowledge of their horrific provenance, it might be hard to resist the meat pies of Christine Baranski’s thoroughly tasty Mrs. Lovett in the Kennedy Center’s new “Sweeney Todd.” As the economical helpmeet of Stephen Sondheim’s demonic barber, Baranski is simply and entirely irresistible. Her performance constitutes the first exciting discovery of the Kennedy Center’s summerlong Sondheim Celebration — there are five more heaping helpings of Sondheim to come — but perhaps more notable is the overall strength of Christopher Ashley’s production, which augurs well for the future of this extraordinarily ambitious undertaking.
Mind you, this is not a revelatory interpretation of Sondheim’s alternately grisly and gleeful tale about various flavors of love, lust and vengeance in Victorian London. And the game but miscast Brian Stokes Mitchell doesn’t provide the ferocity in the title role that this musical needs for its darkest notes to peal forth powerfully. But it is a funny, musically rewarding and theatrically polished staging of one of the landmark shows of the last quarter-century. And given a relatively modest budget and the time constraints of the festival — the show opened after just three preview performances, which might explain some serious sound glitches — the accomplishment is doubly impressive.
Harold Prince’s original Broadway production continues to provide a reliable blueprint for this demandingly complex show, and its influence is clear here. Derek McLane’s set represents the tortured bowels of London in the dehumanizing Industrial Age by way of masses of dank metal pipes twisting every which way. The cast sometimes performs from metal walkways and staircases connected in various configurations. Howell Binkley’s lighting slants harshly down at the characters, as from high factory windows. The costumes by David C. Woolard bespeak the expected misery and grime of the gutter, and even the hairdos — Mrs. L’s twin pigtails, for instance, and Anthony Hope’s mutton chops — are familiar.
Dutifully ominous atmosphere notwithstanding, the production is in fact far better at transmitting the show’s raucous comic elements than its black and brooding ones. Baranski’s briskly mischievous Mrs. Lovett, who brightens up the proceedings from her flour-covered entrance to her final immolation, has a lot to do with this.
With her hair in a pair of unruly orange tufts that look like furry little ears, and a bright glint in her eyes, Baranski’s Mrs. L has both the look and the zippy energy of an eager, yapping lapdog. Her accent tends to range freely up and down the British social scale, and even visits such distant points as Dublin and Beverly Hills, but why complain when she spits out every word of Sondheim’s lyrics with a crispness that gives them their full comic due?
This precision is particularly rewarding since Mrs. Lovett’s two manic tour-de-forces — her bitter lament “The Worst Pies in London” and the grisly waltz “A Little Priest” — present Sondheim at his macabre best, with each containing more lyrical wit per bar of music than anything since the heyday of Gilbert & Sullivan. Baranski knows precisely where each joke is, both in Sondheim’s lyrics and Hugh Wheeler’s book, and serves each to the audience with the loving care that Mrs. L brings to her steaming pies.
The show’s other comic aspects are strongly put forth, too, particularly the introduction of Tobias Ragg (Mark Price) and the doomed pseudo-Italian scam artist Pirelli (Kevin Ligon) in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” Price is a vocal standout among a generally vocally strong cast, and he has the sharpest accent on hand, too. He also manages to bring one of the few notes of emotional veracity to the proceedings, in a tender and appealing perf of much-recorded ballad “Not While I’m Around.”
There aren’t many other emotional high points, I’m afraid, despite the subplot about the endangered young lovers Anthony Hope (Hugh Panaro) and Johanna (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and the relentlessly sanguinary nature of the proceedings. The underpowered dramatic core is perhaps not surprising, given a director who has largely specialized in comedy. But much of the deficiency undoubtedly derives from the valiant but unavailing performance of Mitchell in the title role.
Mitchell has a lush and appealing baritone and fine musical instincts. He sings the role with all the fervor it requires. But he is never quite convincing as a man driven to indiscriminate murder by a desire for revenge that has permanently poisoned the depths of his heart. The crazed look in the eyes, the lumbering gait (familiar from “King Hedley II,” in which he was similarly out-of-place) and the menacing rumble in the voice — all are the dutifully deployed tools of a talented actor who seems fundamentally out of sympathy with the forces that drive this character. As a result, the show’s dramatic climax, the “Epiphany” in which Sweeney’s thwarted need for revenge explodes into an unbridled bloodlust that will ultimately consume him, doesn’t leave us shaken and disturbed, in desperate need of the relief Sondheim provides in the succeeding song, “A Little Priest.” In this staging, we don’t need so much relief — as it happens this act-closing comic duet virtually erases the impact of the preceding song.
Supporting performances, too, are stronger vocally than dramatically. Panaro sometimes seems to be reverting to the overwrought vocal theatrics more appropriate for his prior stints in “Phantom” and “Les Miz,” but in general he sings ardently and purely. Keenan-Bolger has a clear, bright and chirpy soprano at ease in the role’s high tessitura. The exception is the effectively grim Judge Turpin of Walter Charles, who is aided by the inclusion of his flagellatory solo that was cut from the original production. Mary Beth Peil, by contrast, doesn’t strike quite the right note of portent in the role of the beggar woman — she’s more lewdly comic than pitiful or haunting.
And so is the production as a whole: Sondheim’s shimmering, haunting score, richly played by the Kennedy Center Orchestra in Jonathan Tunick’s gorgeous original orchestrations, tells a far darker tale than one unfolding rather merrily on the stage. Ashley’s production is never less than entertaining and polished — and, to reiterate, it’s an impressive achievement given the inevitable constraints — but it is not the brooding, unshakeably disturbing inquiry into the all-consuming nature of revenge that “Sweeney Todd” has the potential to be.