Our well-being comes at a high karmic price: the termination of the plant and animal life we consume. This qualifies the pacifism of even the most devout Buddhist; of necessity, we are all killers. The rest is a matter of ethics and degree—a question of taste, if you'll pardon the phrase.
Stephen Sondheim acknowledges as much in his famous 1979 musical, Sweeney Todd. It mocks the horror of its title character's dual career as a serial killer and a fresh-protein provider to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop. Both services are rendered on Todd's bloody road to vengeance against Judge Turpin, a corrupt London magistrate who coveted Todd's wife and had him deported.
You've got to break a few heads if you want to make an omelet, it seems. Indeed, it's far too easy to nod along with Sondheim's sweeping, giddy chorus when Todd concludes, in the mordant theatrical centerpiece "A Little Priest," "The history of the world, my sweet/ Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!" It would be hard to find a plainer voicing of the ruthless social Darwinism of England's industrial revolution.
In this Raleigh Little Theatre production, such sensible sentiments are voiced by persuasive leading actors. Under Patrick Torres's direction, David Henderson is more haunted—and, occasionally, more psychotic—than when he first performed the title role in Chapel Hill in 1992. And gifted comic actor and singer Rose Higgins clearly deserves more mainstage time in roles like Sondheim's overweening pragmatist, Mrs. Lovett. Her work on "A Little Priest" and "The Worst Pies in London," with veteran musical director Julie Florin, is authoritative.
Unfortunately, my occasional criticism of RLT productions comes up again: supporting roles must be just as convincing as these distinguished leads. As the barber Pirelli, Areon Mobasher adds another memorable performance to an increasingly impressive résumé, but, on opening night, Edward Freeman grew increasingly off-key as Anthony, the romantic interest of Todd's daughter (Rachel Pottern).
And perhaps it was the vocal range of Judge Turpin's part that forced Joel Rainey to sometimes sing, sometimes speak his lyrics. Brian Westbrook seemed more peevish than truly menacing as Turpin's henchman, while Ben Pluska remained too much a cipher as Todd and Lovett's servant.
Still, designer Vicki Olson's incisive, occasionally droll costumes vividly detail the characters, and Chasta Hamilton Calhoun's choreography outfits a martial chorus, giving the show's madhouse scene a phantasmal air. Miyuki Su's atmospheric set design falters, however, during the final scenes in Lovett's hellish bakehouse.
In all, this Sweeney Todd is a bit too close to a theatrical equivalent of Mrs. Lovett's pies: toothsome on the top, with more questionable ingredients below. Bon appétit?
This article appeared in print with the headline, "Close Shave."