Tales of murder, the macabre and midnight's bloodiest deeds have long held the power to capture our darkest imaginations and haunt our dreams.

Composer/Lyricist Stephen Sondheim mixes the style of the Victorian "penny-dreadfuls" and the Grand-Guignol in Paris, with their naturalistic and amoral horror stories, to create his classic "Sweeney Todd/The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

The Duluth Playhouse production, directed by Melissa Hart, tells the tale of Sweeney's path of revenge on the judge who took his wife and daughter from him and exiled him to an Australian prison camp.

Fifteen years later, when Todd returns to the scene of the crime, he encounters Mrs. Lovett running her grubby little bakery, on the first floor below his barber shop, where she makes "the worst pies in London." The unlikely couple joins forces and their mayhem and madness terrorize the city.

Despite the horrific evil at the black heart of the musical thriller, Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler mix in moments of humor and broad characterizations.

Equity actress Jen Burleigh-Bentz acted Mrs. Lovett's more dramatic moments well, but, at times, lacked the broad strokes to provide the needed comic relief, both physically and vocally.

Her makeup, hair and costume designs are also often too neat and even too pretty to help Burleigh-Bentz with the comedy and over the top characterization that make Mrs. Lovett such a memorable role.

While Paul Coate (a Twin-Cities based Equity actor) starts out a little less intense in his opening moments, he builds to a frenzied peak of madness, despair and bloodlust, using his barber's razor to slash his way to his ultimate goal of the evil Judge Turpin (Michael Kraklio). One of Coate's strongest dramatic scenes is when he turns on the audience, threatening those in the first few rows with the wrath of his shiny blade.

Coate and Burleigh-Bentz have their strongest vocal moment together with the witty Act One closing song, "A Little Priest," where Sondheim's lyrical genius is especially on display.

Sondheim's score is rich and lush, and, despite having a nine piece orchestra, the music was sometimes played by just keyboard or too softly by the other musicians, making the drama and sweep of the score less powerful.

The ensemble and the supporting characters, however, provide many strong vocal moments, giving the score its dark palette of musical motifs, including the innocent, young couple, Johanna (Haley Methner) and Anthony Hope (Stuart Gordon); the sweetly villainous Beadle Bamford (Zach Churchill); the pitiful waif Tobias (Kyle McMillan), and the hilarious Pirelli (Joe McLaughlin).

Scenic Designer Ann Gumpper's evocative set provides a brooding backdrop, making dramatic use of pivoting pieces, escape hatches, moving stairs and shadowy doorways. Her design, along with Jeff Brown's lighting, are integral in creating Sweeney Todd's unforgettably murky and violent domain.

Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.


What: The Duluth Playhouse's "Sweeney Todd/The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Where: The NorShor Theatre 211 E. Superior St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday March 29-April 13; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 7 and April 14

Tickets: $35-$50 (depending on seat location) Available online at  www.duluthplayhouse.org or at (218) 733-7555

Student Rush (ages 25 & under): $25 at the door with valid Student ID, the night of a performance only.