Stephen Sondheim claims that his Tony Award-winning Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street isn't about cannibalism. Musical Theater Heritage's George Harter told an audience last weekend that the story of the murderous barber, whose customers become key ingredients in a meat-pie recipe, is Sondheim's "horror movie for the stage." (It's also, Harter added, Sondheim's homage to Bernard Herrmann, who composed scores for Taxi Driver and numerous Alfred Hitchcock films, including Psycho.)
Sarah Crawford directs an 18-member cast and a seven-piece orchestra (Jeremy Watson plays piano and conducts), and Don Richard stars as the title character, a man who has turned into a bitter, vengeful monster seeking a misguided salvation. Sondheim's songs drive this story with force and excitement (and with sentiment in the ballads). Without a set, Richard and co-star, Cathy Barnett (as Mrs. Lovett), both outstanding, lead an expanded reading. Cast members sit upstage, in front of the orchestra, performing at a row of microphones when their parts are in play. Half make up the chorus, lending support to a strong cast that includes Brittanie Bagby Baker, Nathan Bovos, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Katie Karel, Bryan LaFave, Mark Poppleton and Julie Shaw.
There are costumes (including a clever use of red ties to depict blood), choreography and dramatic use of lighting (designed by Shane Rowse), but — unlike the overstuffed 2007 Tim Burton screen adaptation — the sanguinary aesthetic isn't the whole point. As usual, MTH focuses on the music and words, and even at this scale the show is lively, engaging — and suspenseful. And you have till Sunday to see it.