REVIEW: DCPA Theatre Co. stays sharp in ‘Sweeney Todd’

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Move over, Hannibal Lecter.

The demon barber of Fleet Street just reclaimed his throne as pop culture’s most potent, cannibalistic antihero.

Robert Petkoff and Linda Mugleston in “Sweeney Todd” at The Stage Theatre in Denver. Photo courtesy of Sam Adams/Adams Visual CommunicationsTrue, that particular onstage niche isn’t exactly teeming with candidates, but Robert Petkoff as London’s most-beloved serial killer alongside a team of exceptionally talented actors, musicians and stagecraft wizards affirms Sweeney Todd’s place atop that peculiar shortlist.

Now showing at The Stage Theatre, The DCPA Theatre Company’s “Sweeney Todd” is an expertly sculpted resurrection of Stephen Sondheim’s notoriously noir operetta. Dripping with intrigue and glossed with the grotesque, this incarnation of “Sweeney” is a fresh, yet faithful, sensation from the first jugular spurt to the last. Yeah, there’s still a lot of blood.

The show follows the macabre mission of Sweeney Todd, neé Benjamin Barker, who’s hellbent on offing the venal Judge Turpin (Kevin McGuire). Years earlier, Turpin banishes Todd from London with the intent of swooping his wife, Lucy (played in various forms by Kathleen McCall). Todd returns from exile to avenge the crooked judge and his crony, Beadle Bamford (Dwelvan David), for supposedly driving his wife to suicide and holding his daughter, Johanna (Samantha Bruce), prisoner. Upon his homecoming, Todd teams up with a lonely pie maker (Linda Mugleston) to gain access to his targets, slaughtering Londoners and mincing them into meat pies in the process.

Despite that atrociously grim description, the show at the DCPA is unreservedly funny. And clever. And manipulative. It manages to convince attendees to root for a man who hardly hesitates when slicing an unsuspecting throat, and sing along with a psychotic shop owner who encourages the bloodshed.

Expertly twisted and exquisitely brined, the show is teeming with uncomfortable dichotomies. Todd’s righteous quest for marital vengeance contrasts his role as cold-blooded throat-slitter, and cheering for the guy who turns an entire city into unknowing cannibals doesn’t exactly feel right. But it’s through those twitchy dualities that the DCPA team (led by director Kent Thompson) coyly manipulates the audience’s collective cognitive dissonance. From Petkoff’s symmetrically divided haircut to the drastic, crimson lighting cues utilized by lighting designer Kenton Yeager, the production is peppered with shrewd stagecraft throughout the two-act performance.

Sonically, the DCPA’s “Sweeney” is a cerebral blend of Sondheim, Tim Burton and the reason why many people will buy tickets — the musical adaptations by Denver darlings DeVotchKa. No singular piece of the formula drowns out the others, as the blend of gypsy swing, brassy Broadway and chintzy pop swirls together to form a delightful musical stratosphere that hovers above the entire production. DeVotchKans Shawn King, Tom Hagerman and Jeanie Schroder rarely stray from the original book, and instead add steady yet subdued traces of their signature, homey din. Devoted “Sweeney” disciples will be pleased by their commitment to the original, while longtime fans of the ‘Votch may be underwhelmed.

Musical star power aside, the performances are where the show shines brightest. Petkoff is a fantastically eerie protagonist who broods with palpable fury and oozes with sociopathic contempt. Beside him, Mugleston as Todd’s murderous accomplice is an unbridled delight. With impeccable comedic timing and a wonderful assumption of the cockney squawk, Mugleston commands the theater’s conscious in each of her numerous musical numbers. She injects her own brand of irritation into the absurdly catchy “By The Sea” in the second act, serving as a delectable foil for the detached Petkoff.Daniel Berryman and Samantha Bruce in “Sweeney Todd” at The Stage Theater in Denver. Photo courtesy of Sam Adams/Adams Visual Communications

But Kevin Curtis as the peppy Tobias Ragg is the unexpected star of the DCPA production. From the moment he explodes out of Pirelli’s (Michael Brian Dunn) traveling trance, he dishes beautiful numbers with brilliant vim. His takes on “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “Not while I’m Around” serve as sneaky high-water marks in a production overflowing with talent.

Thankfully, this spooky tale hasn’t lost the shock and awe that made stomachs churn and jaws drop during its debut in 1979. On the contrary, “Sweeney Todd” at the DCPA remains the confusingly infectious injection of macabre it has always been. And thanks to the faint yet polished tones of a certain Grammy-nominated Denver bunch, cannibalism has never sounded so good.

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“Sweeney Todd”

6:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; with additional performances at 1:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. No shows on Mon. Through May 15 at the Stage Theatre at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver. 

Tickets start at $35. 800-641-1222 ordenvercenter.org