Heather Orth and Keith Pinto are superb in Hillbarn Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd.” (Courtesy Mark and Tracy Photography)

‘Sweeney Todd’ at Hillbarn is a must-see for Sondheim fans

The first words in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City are: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” This is not a request, but a demand.

The dark operetta by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) is told as a “cautionary tale,” allowing the viewer to understand the machinations of the characters’ inner psyches while being thoroughly entertained by a master composer familiar with the longings of the heart and the realities of unfulfilled dreams and desires. That the Tony award-winning show, albeit a gruesome fable, has become an American musical theater classic, shows how far audiences have come as aficionados of Sondheim’s oeuvre.

Sweeney Todd, a barber in sordid Fleet Street in mid-19th century London who was wrongly imprisoned by a corrupt judge, escapes and returns to his former residence, owned by pie shop proprietor Mrs. Lovett. Hell-bent on revenge, she convinces him to incorporate spoils from his murderous episodes into meat pies she contentedly sells to eager yet unsuspecting customers. Spoiler alert: Things do not go well.

Director Josh Marx has assembled a dream cast of 20 actors who bring depth to the work. Sweeney Todd is expertly played by Keith Pinto, who nails the character with a controlled manic delivery of dialogue and song. In a mental world all his own, he keeps up his lust for revenge throughout the performance.

In a part she was born to play, Heather Orth as Mrs. Lovett embodies the role with cunning and control, capturing rapt listeners with every vocal utterance.

Juliet Green as the beggar woman, Chris Vettel as Judge Turpin and Ross Briscoe as Tobias Ragg also are outstanding.

The cast, including the hard-working ensemble, does a fine job with the shrewd staging, employing the aisles and the well-decorated, serviceable bi-level set by Tina Na Wang. The lighting design by Pam Gray sets the tone perfectly.

Musical director Rick Reynolds has a firm hand on the 14-piece orchestra performing the dazzling score; it’s not easy music to play or sing — none of Sondheim’s works are — so kudos to all.

Among the production’s few missteps are the costumes, which are too elaborate and seem as though they were designed for a Gilbert and Sullivan offering, and the makeup, which seems heavy handed at times. The most glaring visual blunders are two instances of projected animation in the song “The Barber and His Wife.”

Still, the show in Hillbarn’s intimate space is enrapturing on so many levels, it’s a must-see for Sondheim fans, both new and well-seasoned.

Sweeney Todd
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 10
Tickets: $35 to $52
Contact: (650) 349-6411, www.hillbarntheatre.org

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