Every so often, a fallacious e-mail goes around describing the horrible fate of a teenage girl who made the mistake of scarfing down a fast-food burrito full of beans, mystery meat, and spider eggs. The story usually ends with millions of baby spiders chewing a painful hole through the unsuspecting diner's face. The fear of unsuspectingly eating something truly horrible runs strong, and it's not at all surprising that the macabre tale of Sweeney Todd, a London barber who shaves his clients too closely, robs their pockets, and delivers the remains to his neighbor the cook, has been so popular for so long. Even Theatre Memphis' sanitized staging of Stephen Sondheim's blood-soaked musical is good for a few Halloween chills.
Sweeney Todd, like the aforementioned legend, is an urban story — the product of claustrophobia, xenophobia, and a general mistrust of both government and businesses that seem to be too successful. All of this is lost in Christopher McCollum's modern set design, which uses shimmering screens and white tiled surfaces that may be intended to evoke images of a modern-day mental institution but look more like bits and pieces of some sprawling public restroom. It's a fantastic visual creation that, unfortunately, does nothing to evoke the filthy, overcrowded streets of a recently industrialized London or to set the tone for one the most enduring horror stories of the past two centuries. It's the production's first, and its most significant, undoing.
In his earliest literary incarnations, Sweeney was simply a monster driven by greed, but by the time of Sondheim's adaptation, the barber had been provided with a sympathetic back-story. George Dudley, an actor of considerable skill and subtlety, has perhaps bought too deeply into Sweeney's softer side, all but eliminating the character's demonic edge. His smoldering, nuanced performance doesn't travel well past the first few rows of seating, especially compared to Kim Justis' deliciously over-the-top take on Mrs. Lovett, Todd's revolting paramour and pie-baking partner in crime.
Barclay Roberts and Randal Cooper relish their roles as the musical's two chief villains, Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. It's too bad that what should be Roberts' finest moment, where he flogs himself for harboring unclean thoughts about his ward Johanna, is rendered somewhat foolish by the fact that he never takes his white shirt off.
Director Pam Hurley's decision to cast actors who sing rather than singers who act pays off during the big solos but backfires elsewhere. Missed harmonies cause more cringing in this Sweeney Todd than all the grisly murders and casual cannibalism.
Through November 2nd
Dude Looks Like A Wolf-lady
Longtime Memphis theatergoers should be familiar with Mandacrest, the stately home of antiquarian adventurer Lord Edgar and his second wife Lady Enid, as well as Jane their duty-bound maid, Nicodemus, the stinky, one-legged stable boy, and a variety of bloodsucking fiends.
Circuit Playhouse staged a memorable, hugely successful production of Charles Ludlam's zany, gender-bending The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1989, then revived the show with the same cast in the mid-1990s. Germantown Community Theatre's current staging of the show isn't nearly as energized or as finely acted as its predecessors, but it's still great fun with laughs to spare.
Jenny Smith excels in the roles of flinty Jane and the eccentric egyptologist Lord Edgar, whose mustache swings about like a mad pendulum in search of a pit. Her acting partner Chris Tracy has many fine moments, though his accent constantly wanders from Yorkshire to Nutbush. He excels when the show calls for self-conscious comedy but can't fully connect with the role of Nicodemus, an ultimately sympathetic character that infuses the play's final moments with some genuine humanity.
Irma Vep borrows its setting and tone from Hitchcock's gothic romance Rebecca and parodies all the tropes of classic horror and suspense. The greatest suspense, however, comes from wondering whether or not the actors will be able to make all of their impossibly quick costume changes successfully. This cast and crew of backstage dressers occasionally leave the audience waiting too long, but in the end it's always worth it.
Through November 2nd