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Theatre Gael stages a spooky Sweeney Todd

THEATER

The incongruity surrounding Theatre Gael's production of Sweeney Todd is not that Atlanta's Celtic-themed playhouse should stage a musical with an English setting, written by an American composer. Any pretext for presenting Stephen Sondheim's challenging, ingenious work should be seized upon, with Theatre Gael pointing to the plight of Irish immigrants in the play's 19th century London.

The more peculiar thing is choosing to stage in summertime a musical whose mood is so suitable to Halloween. The polar opposite to the sunny song-and-dance shows that other theaters like to produce this time of year, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street fits the eerie tradition of Grand Guignol with its dark subject matter and spooky stage effects. Director Heidi Cline and an ensemble of 16 actors put a tremendous amount of energy into the production, which nevertheless doesn't quite meet the full potential of the material.

Taking the tale of one of England's most enduring bogeymen, Sondheim shapes Sweeney Todd (Jeff Dye) in the mold of other musical protagonists. Like Jean Valjean of Les Miz, he spent the earlier part of his life unjustly accused, sentenced to life in the Australian penal colony for trumped-up charges. Like The Phantom of the Opera, he's motivated by revenge, aiming at the conniving judge (Bryan Davis) who sent him away and is currently raising Todd's long-lost daughter Johanna (Wendy Melkonian). Unfortunately much of the sung exposition can be unintelligible, although a flashback involving Johanna's mother at a strobe-lit masquerade makes an effective, creepy image.

Haunted by his past, the former barber takes up with a Mrs. Lovett (Jill Hames), proud baker of "the worst meat pies in London." She happens to have Todd's steel-handled razor blades still in her possession, and their Faustian partnership turns them into ghoulish entrepreneurs: He slashes the throats of barber customers new to the neighborhood, and she cooks the remains into pies, which start selling like hotcakes.

They concoct the scheme in the duet "A Little Priest," which ends Act 1, as Todd and Lovett pretend to sample pies made with men from all professions, including "Shepherd's Pie peppered with actual shepherds." Replete with Shakespearean puns, it's the evening's most giddily entertaining number, with the performers perfectly in sync with the script's black comedy.

Although the Theatre Gael ensemble seems most comfortable with the play's darkly humorous elements, Sweeney Todd's primary intentions are more serious, offering caustic social commentary and the grim consequences of tragedy in the midst of blood-curdling melodrama. Sondheim's Brechtian compositions can be chilly and forbidding, and in this production have only sporadic emotional force. The show's certainly not helped by the use of ear-splitting mechanical shrieks as dramatic stings, or having men sing "Sweeney! Sweeney!" in falsettos.

Dye has an undeniably forceful singing voice, and certainly few performers can convincingly serenade a razor blade. But he tends to strike the pose of a generic musical theater leading man, and apart from his memorable glower, he conveys a rather narrow range of feelings. Hames provides a very funny turn as the clownishly cockney Mrs. Lovett, who can turn from maternal nurturer to calculating cannibal within a heartbeat, but still may be a bit young and perky for the part. They make a fine team, like blue-collar versions of Macbeth and his wife.

Melkonian proves a charismatic performer, although she seems a bit worldly as ingenue-in-distress Johanna. Craig Waldrip, as trusting sailor Anthony, makes an engaging romantic lead and sings with persistent clarity. While individual members of the ensemble might overdo some of their traits (like Rita Dolphin's deranged beggar woman), they can be an effective chorus of downtrodden but righteous rabble.

Phil Santora's set perfectly evokes the grubbiness of London's slums, even stringing clotheslines over the audience's heads when they enter. The design exploits every available inch of the 14th Street Playhouse's second stage, even sending cast members through the audience and down trapdoors. Theatre Gael's Sweeney Todd certainly makes full use of the resources it has, taking to heart Mrs. Lovett's advice, "Waste not, want not." Although you leave feeling it isn't the ideal production of the play, Theatre Gael's take on The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can still cut to the quick.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays through July 2 at Theatre Gael, 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $18. 404-876-9762.

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