'Sweeney Todd' thrills and chills in Effective production

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
* Effective Theatre
Athenaeum Studio Theatre II, Second Floor, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago

(773) 918-8777
* Not suitable for children
* Tickets $18 at the box office or via TicketMaster, (312) 902-1500; no reserved seating
* 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 30
* Call for parking information

Citylife Editor
First produced by Harold Prince in 1979, Stephen Sondheim's thrilling musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," is typically a spectacle performed on huge stages with casts as large as 45. So it was something of a surprise to walk into the new Athenaeum Studio II and see an 80-seat theater and a small, sparse, black-painted set.

It turns out the grisly show is even scarier when you see it close up.

Effective Theatre has lived up to its name with this stunningly effective production of the tale of the vengeful barber Benjamin Barker -- part opera, part classical tragedy, part dark comedy.

Falsely convicted and transported by a lecherous judge who coveted Barker's wife, the barber has returned to London under the alias Sweeney Todd, bent on revenge. Kevin Will puts forth a haunting performance as the puritanical, obsessive, maniacal Sweeney.

Settling into his old quarters, he finds a helpmate in his landlady, Nellie Lovett, the meat-pie baker, deliciously played by Tammy Menegheni. Together, they wreak bloody havoc on the London citizenry, as Sweeney butchers hapless haircut patrons and Mrs. Lovett takes advantage of this source of raw material.

The cast in general exudes talent. Charlie Clark does a perfect job as the boy Toby, hawking first Pirelli's Miracle Elixir and then Mrs. Lovett's meat pies with enthusiasm. Carrie Peterson is at first sweetly ditzy and then increasingly crazed as Barker's daughter, Johanna, reared by the depraved Judge Turpin. Bil Ingraham imbues that role with an eerie lust that peaks in his disturbed and disturbing solo, "Johanna."

All the voices are wonderful, from Will's resonant baritone to Peterson's soprano to the alternately harmonic and discordant chorus. Musical Director Jeff Bell merits high marks, both as conductor and as principal keyboardist.

Not everyone cares for Sondheim's somewhat dissonant music, but the abrasive, funereal melodies are ideal for this gory story.

Director L. Walter Stearns has called for a fair amount of stage blood in this production: not so much it evokes giggles, yet enough to provoke chills. He's made very effective use of two raised platforms to add more dimensions to the small stage and skillfully arranged a company of seven -- beyond the eight principals -- as townspeople, murder victims, bedlamites and chorus as needed.

The intimate setting makes the action more compelling.

"Sweeney Todd" is the inaugural performance for the Studio II space on the second floor of the Athenaeum. There is a major drawback to its intimacy: The seats are set so closely back to front that they're nearly as murderous to one's knees as Sweeney is to his victims.

But this show is worth it.