Amid the din of pre-show audience chatter, Sweeney Todd cast members inconspicuously enter the AllWays Lounge's small theater space carrying a stained body bag with someone moving inside it and place it on a platform in the middle of the room. The lights dim and the cast, their faces illuminated only by candles, begins the opening number, which features crazy Stephen Sondheim harmonies with notes so high they sound like screaming. This sets the tone for director Dennis Monn's weird and campy — but also charming — production of the musical.
The story is set in dirty 19th century London, and Monn's creepy atmosphere and bohemian cast make this world real. The small space is a big asset because it allows the audience to feel immersed in the action. It's especially effective for those chills-inducing iterations of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," when cast members emerge from all corners of the theater. One might be startled to hear the witchy cackle of Altercation, who is delightful as a deranged beggar woman with a secret identity, coming behind him or her.
The space also lends itself to some nonconsensual audience participation during the "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" scene, and some small meat pies containing fake fingers are distributed in another.
Ratty Scurvics plays Sweeney Todd, a barber who returns to London seeking vengeance on the judge who unfairly jailed him. He plays the role with a gentleness that belies the nefarious deeds of his character later in the show. Todd finds a partner in crime in neighbor Mrs. Lovett (cellist Helen Gillet), a daffy baker of terrible meat pies. While not always able to hit her character's high notes, the gangling Gillet pulls off the comedic aspects of her role, especially when she and Scurvics team up for "A Little Priest." She plays the cello beautifully in one scene.
The cast's vocal abilities varied wildly, which is problematic when dealing with a musically challenging show whose plot is mostly in the songs. Sondheim purists might be unnerved at times. But a few singers stood out, particularly Pandora Gastelum as Todd's daughter Johanna, who becomes the property of Judge Turpin (portrayed as an satin-wearing weirdo by Steve Walkup). Gastelum has a special soprano voice that is a treat to hear. Other vocal standouts include David Symons as lovestruck Anthony and Barron Burmaster as the assistant to barber Adolfo Pirelli (played in cross-dress by musician Aurora Nealand).
Soon the murdering starts, and things get campy with red lighting and a noisy fog machine, lending a B-movie feel to the show. It's part of the charm of the production, and its downtown cast are clothed in mismatched costumes. Like the theater's production of The Threepenny Opera, which was directed by Monn and featured many of the same players, it was exciting to see a classic musical staged in an unlikely setting by uniquely New Orleans characters. — Lauren LaBorde