Terrified prisoner seeks help from cinematic heroine

kiss-of-the-spider-woman-molina-and-valentin-argue

Molina (Scott Hunt, left) has an uneasy relationship with cellmate Valentin (Joe Joseph), a leftist revolutionary, in Short North Stage’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman (photo by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Molina prefers fantasy to reality. Small wonder: As a gay man living in a South American dictatorship in the 1970s, he’s too shy and scared to act on his romantic desires.

One of his fantasies involves his fevered friendship with Gabriel, a straight man who can’t give him the love he craves. Mostly, though, his fantasies revolve around Aurora, a movie star who embodies the feminine grace and beauty he tries to re-create in his job as a department-store window dresser.

Then Molina is thrown into prison on the trumped-up charge of making advances on an underage male. It soon becomes evident he’s being pressured by the warden to glean information out of Valentin, the leftist revolutionary who shares his cell. After avoiding reality all his life, Molina suddenly finds himself in a horrifying dilemma that not even fantasies of his beloved Aurora can block out.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on a novel by Manuel Puig that previously inspired a 1983 stage play and a 1985 movie starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. The stage musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb—opened on Broadway in 1993 and won that year’s Tony for best musical.

After seeing the film, the play and the musical, I still find the film the most moving interpretation of the story. But Short North Stage’s production of the musical, directed by Michael Licata (who also helmed 2015’s wonderful A Little Night Music), is impressive on several levels.

Scott Hunt gives a relatable portrayal of the in-over-his-head Molina and backs it up with a beautiful singing voice. Joe Joseph is macho but vulnerable as Valentin and also displays strong pipes, especially in an Act 1 lament about Marta, the woman he loves.

As Aurora, the movie star who dominates Molina’s fantasies, Eli Brickey often is required to sing while swinging (upside down, even) from a suspended sash. Though she aces this dizzying task, at other times her breathy voice seems stretched by the role’s vocal demands. She also projects less glamour than one would expect from such a fantasy figure, though she has no trouble projecting a satirical take on glamour, as she does during a Betty Boop-style number in Act 2.

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)
Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Key supporting roles are nicely handled by Todd Covert as the manipulative warden; Alex Armesto and Amari Ingram as the abusive prison guards; James Schoppe as Molina’s friend, Gabriel; Danielle Grays as the sexy but unreliable Marta; and Linda Kinnison Roth as Molina’s loving mother.

Visually, the production boasts a weathered-looking two-story set designed by Jason Bolen. Though not lit as dramatically as it might be by Adam Zeek, it allows the action to skip effortlessly between terrifying reality and the musical fantasy sequences that represent the inner workings of Molina’s troubled mind.

Speaking of those fantasy sequences, they benefit from Edward Carignan’s playful and sometimes kitschy choreography and are ably accompanied by musical director Philip Brown Dupont and his mighty backstage band.

As a final bonus, every word of dialogue and lyrics comes through clearly, not the easiest feat in the Garden Theater’s acoustically challenging auditorium.

Add all this to the fact that this is the area premiere of Kander and Ebb’s award-winning work, and the show becomes a top priority for fans of musical theater.

Short North Stage will present Kiss of the Spider Woman through Nov. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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Tending a plant that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer

Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Skid Row isn’t the best location for a flower shop. That’s the conclusion store owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Cardinal) reaches following a sales-less day in Little Shop of Horrors.

Luckily, store clerk Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) discovers a mysterious plant that soon has customers flocking to their door. Well, maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word, since Seymour quickly learns that the plant thrives only when it gets a steady supply of its favorite food: human blood.

Based on a low-budget 1960 film, the stage musical opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 but was soon transplanted to Broadway, where it bloomed into a five-year hit. Its success is mostly due to the sparking collection of rock, pop and blues songs written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Though obviously darker than those family-friendly flicks, the musical shares a seed of humanity and a sense of fun that prevent it from becoming too macabre.

At Shadowbox, it’s hardly surprising that director Stev Guyer and his cast have no trouble with the musical numbers. The vocals are both strong and expressive, never allowing the characters’ personalities to get lost in the melodic underbrush. Accompanying them is a four-piece band that has a feel for the music, which often sounds like a holdover from rock’s innocent early years.

Between songs, the production mostly hits the right dramatic and comic notes.

Tomasacci wins our sympathy as Seymour, an orphan who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik as a child. As a result of his gratefulness and low self-esteem, Seymour feels unworthy of demanding better treatment from the employer who underpays and overworks him. And he feels even less worthy of the woman he secretly worships, fellow clerk Audrey (Edelyn Parker).

For her part, Audrey has even lower self-esteem, to the extent that she puts up with constant abuse from her sadistic dentist/boyfriend, Orin (Jamie Barrow). Parker plays Audrey as a stereotypical bimbo but with an undercurrent of longing that becomes palpable in the wistful ballad Somewhere That’s Green. Unfortunately, Parker adds a veneer of stagy melodrama by striking poses straight out of the silent-film era. It’s a puzzling choice that undercuts an otherwise sympathetic portrayal.

As Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist who’s never happy unless he’s making Audrey or his patients miserable, Barrow is like a less-scary version of Dennis Hopper’s maniac in Blue Velvet. He’s amusing, but a bit more menace would make him a better villain.

Then again, when it comes to menace and villainy, it would be hard to beat the bloodthirsty plant that Seymour names Audrey II. Depicted by puppets of ever-increasing sizes, it’s voiced by Billy DePetro in raucous tones that suggest an evil radio deejay.

Helping to establish the neighborhood’s rundown character are a mostly silent wino (Brandon Anderson) and three spunky “urchins” (Noelle Grandison, Nikki Fagin and Ashley Pearce). The latter serve as a streetwise Greek chorus, commenting from the sidelines and occasionally breaking into song.

Watching a scene in which Seymour contemplates committing murder to feed the insatiable Audrey II, some may be reminded of a similar scene from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which a couple of local troupes revived in the spring. Though otherwise completely different, both musicals sport bloody plots driven by love: love lost in Sweeney Todd and love desired in Little Shop of Horrors.

That fertile bit of humanity, along with the hummable tunes, keeps Ashman and Menken’s cult hit from withering away on its farcical vine.

Little Shop of Horrors will be presented through Nov. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays (no shows Nov. 6 or 20), plus 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Missionaries have close encounter of the Merman kind

By Richard Ades

The Book of Merman is to The Book of Mormon what a Pekingese is to a bulldog: It’s smaller, fluffier and far less funny.

To be fair, The Book of Merman isn’t entirely fluffy, as it does have a message about being true to oneself. But you’ll see that coming so far in advance that it doesn’t have much impact.

Written by Leo Schwartz, the musical starts out with a clever premise. It’s about a pair of Mormon missionaries who come face to face with a woman who claims to be someone she clearly isn’t. Or is she?

We first meet Elders Shumway and Braithwaite (Nick Hardin and T. Johnpaul Adams) as they’re bickering their way from one suburban doorbell to the next while trying to avoid their territorial rivals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bickering stems from the fact that Braithwaite is far more into their two-year mission than Shumway, who seems so averse to all things Mormon that he can’t even stand Salt Lake City.

Then they end up at the door of a woman who calls herself Ethel Merman (Gina Handy). Shumway, a fan of Broadway in general and Merman in particular, is overcome with joy. He immediately believes she’s who she says she is, even though the real Ethel Merman reportedly died in 1984. In no time, he’s chatting with her about his own dreams of becoming a Broadway composer and star.

For his part, Braithwaite doesn’t even know who Merman was—or is. He just wants to give this odd woman the word of Mormon so they can get on with their mission.

Working under Bryan Adam’s direction and Bryan Babcock’s musical direction, all three cast members give likable and tuneful performances.

Hardin is particularly convincing as the stage-struck Shumway, while Adams, by a slight margin, exhibits the most commanding voice. As Merman, Handy isn’t always as big and brassy as she could be, especially when she’s speaking. But when she really lays into a song, her Merman impersonation is nearly impeccable.

The songs themselves are sometimes takeoffs on Broadway tunes that became Merman standards. For example, Most People fills in for Some People from Gypsy, while You’re the Best replaces You’re the Top from Anything Goes. These are OK, but they suffer from comparison to the hits that inspired them.

Some of the Schwartz’s original songs are more entertaining, especially the Act 2 tribute Because of You, beautifully sung by Adams. Babcock’s spirited piano provides the musical accompaniment.

In between the songs, and even during one of them (Son of a Motherless Goat), the humor often pokes fun at the Mormons’ squeaky-clean ways, such as their refusal to curse. These jokes quickly suffer from diminishing returns.

More impressive than the script is the set on which it’s performed. Director Adam’s scenic design, showing Merman’s living room, is far more detailed than anything we’re used to seeing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s cozy Van Fleet Theatre.

With a handsome set, an endearing cast and a timeless moral, The Book of Merman adds up to a harmless diversion. If you want more than that, you’ll have to hold out for The Book of Mormon.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Book of Merman through July 30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no show July 27). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors, $15 students. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Staged ‘Dirty Dancing’ best seen through nostalgia-tinted glasses

Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher) share a few steps in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher Tierney) practice their moves in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Dirty Dancing, you may not have the time of your life watching the stage show, but it’ll probably do until the next time you catch the 1987 flick.

Adapted by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the theatrical version tries to recapture the magic of the Jennifer Grey-Patrick Swayze romance but starts out with several strikes against it.

The first strike, of course, is that it features neither Jennifer Grey nor the late Patrick Swayze. In their place, the current touring show has Rachel Boone as Frances “Baby” Houseman, who’s vacationing with her family at a Catskills resort in 1963; and Christopher Tierney as Johnny Castle, the working-class dance instructor who attracts her attention.

Boone earns our sympathy and sometimes our laughs as the high-minded Baby, but Tierney’s Johnny is rather stiff except when he’s strutting his stuff on the dance floor. The two generate so little chemistry that when Baby finally announces her feelings for Johnny, it comes as a surprise even though we know that’s what the whole show is about.

It’s not entirely the actors’ fault. The second strike against the show is its episodic structure, especially in the hectic first act. Scenes fly by so fast that there’s no time for any emotional depth to develop.

Strike three is the quirky nature of the show, which can’t be called a real musical because it denies its stars the chance to express themselves in song. Most of the vocal numbers are delivered by minor characters such as Elizabeth (Adrienne Walker) and Billy Kostecki (Doug Carpenter). Both sing beautifully, but in the process they effectively put both Johnny and Baby in the corner.

All of this would have been enough to strike out the average show, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt Dirty Dancing, which has become a worldwide hit. The only explanation is that the show effectively, if imperfectly, rekindles viewers’ affection for the film.

The vintage pop tunes are back, along with several more that couldn’t be obtained for the film. They include Do You Love Me?, If You Were the Only Girl and the beloved finale, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. All are accompanied by a boisterous and brassy onstage (but usually hidden) band led by Alan J. Plado.

Also back are the early 1960s idealism and conflicts, including references to the Peace Corps and the civil rights struggle. It’s in this unstable atmosphere that Baby steps forward to help Penny (Jenny Winton), a friend of Johnny who has been impregnated by her well-to-do boyfriend. That sets up a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between Baby and her previously doting father (Mark Elliot Wilson).

Best of all, the dancing is back, courtesy of Michelle Lynch’s high-kicking and high-lifting choreography.

James Powell’s direction makes the most of the flashier moments, particularly when special effects are used to “show” Baby and Johnny practicing their dance moves in the middle of a forest, a field and even a lake. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set designs and Jon Driscoll’s video and projection designs are the real stars here.

The supporting cast is all strong, with some of the funniest moments provided by Alex Scolari as Baby’s bratty and vocally challenged sister, Lisa.

The stage version of Dirty Dancing is hardly a classic, but it does have the advantage of reviving viewers’ memories of a classic. For many, that will be enough.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dirty Dancing through May 22 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $58-$153. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Sweet music, jarring language and a timeless morality tale

Big River

By Richard Ades

Standing Room Only nearly lived up to its name Friday, as its evening performance of Big River filled most of the seats in CPAC’s Van Fleet Theatre. Hopefully, that means there’s a market for the ambitious programming the troupe has been tackling of late.

Or maybe it simply means people have an undying love for the tale whose source material is often considered the Great American Novel: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Adapted by William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics), the Tony-winning musical again sends its scruffy title character and a runaway slave named Jim down the Mississippi on their respective quests for adventure and freedom.

One of the gutsiest things about SRO’s production is also the reason parents might want to prepare their youngest children for the experience. Like Twain’s novel, but unlike an expurgated version I saw many years ago, it allows characters to spout the most racist term in the American vocabulary. The word can sound jarring to modern ears, but it’s probably necessary. That’s because the story depends on a frank portrait of 19th century attitudes to underscore its central lesson.

Huck begins the tale as a rebellious lad who nonetheless accepts the morality of his pre-Civil War era when it comes to the subjugation of black Americans. Indeed, he’s so convinced slavery is a holy institution that he worries he’ll go to hell if he helps Jim escape. Both the novel and the musical are most moving when they show the boy reassessing his position after getting to know Jim as a human being.

Miller’s songs are sometimes stirring but mostly laid-back and pleasant, especially when accompanied by SRO’s old-timey quintet. Performing under music director Chipper Snow, it’s dominated by Ted Reich’s wistful harmonica and Jordan Shear’s lively fiddle.

As for the vocals, there are a few pitchy moments, but most cast members are up to the challenge. That’s especially true of the two male leads. Caleb Baker (as Huck) and Brandon Buchanan (as Jim) harmonize beautifully on duets such as Muddy Water and Worlds Apart.

Acting-wise, their styles are a bit less harmonious. Though Buchanan’s Jim reflects the tension and fears of a man determined to float his way to freedom, Baker’s Huck is unrelentingly calm. He seems unruffled whether he’s fighting off a knife attack or trying to avoid being tarred and feathered by angry townsfolk.

Baker’s physical appearance—he’s taller and huskier than most of the “adults” around him—also undercuts his portrayal of the youth. But that would be less of a problem if he acted more like a frightened teen rather than a laconic good ol’ boy.

Several of the supporting players make indelible impressions under Dee Shepherd’s easy-going direction.

John Feather is dignified and decent as Judge Thatcher, then abandons both dignity and decency to play the self-described King, a con artist who hitches a ride on Huck and Jim’s raft. Greg Zunkewicz is equally conniving as the King’s companion, the Duke, but he sometimes needed to project more at the performance I attended.

Funniest of all is Thor Collard as Huck’s drunken Pap, especially when he’s railing musically against the Gov’ment. Sweetest of all is Ashton Brammer as Mary Jane, who wins Huck’s heart when she becomes the victim of a scheme hatched by the King and the Duke.

As Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer, Anthony Guerrini gets across the lad’s addiction to romantic adventures. It’s not his fault that Tom becomes a distraction late in the story. His 11th-hour reappearance is the only instance in which Twain’s Great American Novel becomes a little less than great.

Even more than SRO’s recently staged Sweeney Todd, Big River is presented in a bare-bones manner. Designed by Angela Barch, some of the costumes are only vaguely 1840-ish, while the “scenery” consists mainly of a footlocker and a large box.

But none of that matters when the production is at its best, doling out sweet music along with a morality tale that retains its power 131 years after it first pricked the conscience of America.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Big River through May 7 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $21, $18 seniors (55-plus), $16 members, $12 students. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

Singing and dancing overshadow emotion in latest ‘Fiddler’

Appearing in Otterbein University Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof are (front) Lauren Kent (Tzeitel), (rear, from left) Aubree Tally (Golde), Natalie Szczerba (Hodel), John Stefano (Tevye) and Abigail Isom (Chava) (photo by Evan Moore-Coll)
Appearing in Otterbein University Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof are (front) Lauren Kent (Tzeitel), (rear, from left) Aubree Tally (Golde), Natalie Szczerba (Hodel), John Stefano (Tevye) and Abigail Isom (Chava) (photo by Evan Moore-Coll)

By Richard Ades

Otterbein University Theatre apparently is giving Fiddler on the Roof to John Stefano as a going-away present. The professor, who’s retiring after 24 years in the theater and dance department, had long dreamed of playing the iconic dairyman, Tevye.

It’s a wonderful gesture on Otterbein’s part, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if the result had been a production that fell far short of the Tony-winning musical’s potential. After all, you can’t build a show this massive around a single actor.

Thankfully, Otterbein’s theater program is sufficiently rich in talent that its production has several stirring moments.

One of them comes shortly after Tevye introduces us to his Russian hometown, a Jewish community that, in the pre-revolutionary political climate of 1905, is finding life increasingly precarious. Gathering together with their families for the Friday night meal, Tevye and other villagers sing the beautiful Sabbath Prayer.

It’s a heartfelt scene that underscores the message of Tradition, the anthem that opens the show: These humble folks cling to their beliefs and rituals to give meaning to lives mired in poverty, pain and struggle.

Also stirring is the wedding scene in which Tevye and wife Golde (Aubree Talley) marry off the first of their five daughters. Its highlight comes when four dancers perform difficult moves while carefully balancing bottles on their flat-topped hats. Bravo!

In general, director Lenny Leibowitz’s production is at its best in large numbers involving singing and dancing. Otterbein has enough fine vocalists and dancers to carry off Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious anthems and Stella Hiatt Kane’s acrobatic choreography, and rousing accompaniment is supplied by the ample-sized orchestra performing under Lori Kay Harvey’s baton.

Many of the individual actors also sing beautifully, including Lauren Kent, Natalie Szczerba and Abigail Isom as Tevye’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. Their early trio, Matchmaker, is an engaging exploration of their mixed feelings toward the ancient tradition of arranged marriage.

As for Stefano, he’s not the strongest vocalist who ever hauled around Tevye’s milk cart, but neither is he the weakest. Yes, his voice sometimes falters, but it does so in a way that makes the character all the more endearing.

Stefano also shines during the humorous moments in which Tevye complains to God about his sad lot in life—or to the audience about his loving but fear-inducing wife, Golde. The actor’s comic timing is spot-on.

It’s in the more dramatic moments that the Otterbein production sometimes lacks finesse and timing. One example is the aforementioned wedding scene, which peters out long before it’s interrupted by an attack that foreshadows new problems for the local Jewish community.

Another example: Connor Cook is appealing as Motel, the shy tailor who’s afraid to ask Tevye for the hand of his oldest daughter, but the moment in which he finally works up the nerve is rushed through before it has a chance to sink in.

Other problems can be traced to overacting (Dana Cullinane as the over-the-top Matchmaker) or underacting (Andre Spathelf-Sanders, who barely registers as Chava’s non-Jewish suitor). And though Tally strikes the right balance between scariness and warmth as Golde, neither she nor her makeup artist make a serious attempt to disguise the age difference between her and the actor who plays her husband. As a result, it’s hard to believe Golde and Tevye’s marriage really has endured for 25 years.

The production has many strengths beyond those I’ve already mentioned. They include supporting players Connor Allston as Perchik, the radical student who woos Hodel, and Jack Labrecque as Lazar Wolf, the lonely butcher who sets his sights on Tzeitel. Rob Johnson’s nonrealistic scenery and T.J. Gerckens’s lighting also are striking.

Overall, though, this staging of the musical tragicomedy is more effective as a musical and a comedy than it is as a tragedy. Most productions of Fiddler on the Roof are three-hankie affairs, but one should be enough this time around.

Otterbein University Theatre will present Fiddler on the Roof through April 16 at Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

Show offers stripped-down, bloodied-up Sondheim

Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only's production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)
Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only’s production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

If Columbus barbers have noticed a drop in business recently, it could be because the local theater scene is offering not one, but two productions of the bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Those whose taste tends toward the grandiose might want to check out the Ohio State version being presented this weekend at Mershon Auditorium. Those who favor more intimate productions might prefer the Standing Room Only production whose two-week run ends Sunday.

I’ve seen the latter, and I can recommend it with one caveat: The unamplified lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out over the accompaniment. That annoyance aside, the production does right by this darkest of musicals, which features a book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

In fact, it does brilliantly by the musical, thanks to a well-chosen cast and Patrick McGregor II’s ingenious direction.

This is a “black box” production twice over. Not only is the scenery limited to a black backdrop and little more, but the main prop is a black, coffin-shaped box that is continually being moved and upended to serve a multitude of functions. This minimalistic approach might be distracting if McGregor’s cast weren’t so mesmerizing.

Following his starring role in Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables, Bill Hafner again excels playing a 19th century man who’s suffered years of unjust imprisonment. But don’t expect to find much in common between the two portrayals.

Unlike the noble Jean Valjean, Sweeney Todd has vengeance on his mind—vengeance against the judge who sent him away in order to pursue his wife. The former barber’s fury intensifies when he returns to London only to learn that his wife is dead and his daughter has been adopted by that same judge. As portrayed by Hafner, Todd is so overcome by grief and anger that he stumbles around in a state of near catatonia.

In effective contrast, Susan Bunsold Wilson radiates manic energy as Mrs. Lovett, the widowed baker who ultimately becomes Todd’s partner in crime. As amoral as she is personable, Mrs. Lovett quickly finds a way to benefit when the deranged barber’s “shaves” start turning into homicides. It’s no coincidence that her meat pies soon become the talk of the neighborhood.

Both Hafner and Wilson display strong voices on numbers such as their duets By the Sea and the darkly humorous A Little Priest, in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett discuss the optimum ingredients for a tasty pie.

As the dastardly Judge Turpin, Todd Lemmon offers an understated version of villainy that disguises itself under a cloak of piety. Turpin and Hafner join their voices to great effect on Pretty Women, a beautiful song that incongruously arises during a moment of impending murder. A more blatant depiction of evil is offered by Colton Weiss as Turpin’s henchman, the nasal-voiced Beadle.

The musical’s second-most beautiful song, Not While I’m Around, is given a dramatic delivery by Layne Roate as the limping, dimwitted Tobias Ragg. Appearing in other important secondary roles are Ethan White as goodhearted seaman Anthony Hope; Taryn Huffman as Todd’s grown daughter, Johanna; and Laura Crone as a beggar woman and a rival barber.

An impressively large orchestra provides the accompaniment, though music director Josh Cutting ably replaced it with his keyboard at the matinee I attended. Curtis Brown’s lighting not only establishes mood but is used to shift viewers’ focus from one side of the room to the other during quick scene changes.

Filled with dark themes and bloody violence, Sweeney Todd is unsuitable for young children. But SRO’s inventive production makes it a treat for those who appreciate Sondheim’s lovely tunes and graceful lyrics even when they’re sung in the midst of a murder spree.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Remaining show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $12-$21 Saturday, $12-$16 Sunday. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

The Ohio State School of Music, Opera and Lyric Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at Mershon Auditorium, 1879 N. High St., Columbus. Remaining show times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $10 for senior citizens, students, children and OSU faculty, staff and alumni association members. Show isn’t suitable for ages 12 and under. 614-292-3535 or music.osu.edu.