February 24, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Demon revival

From left, Jean Lichty as Cherie and James Judy as Virgil in 'Bus Stop' at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo by Stan Barouh; courtesy of Olney)

Locally, it’s a good time for classics by gay American theater greats.

At Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, audiences are getting acquainted and reacquainted with Stephen Sondheim’s chilling musical masterpiece “Sweeney Todd,” and at the Olney Theatre Center, folks are doing the same with playwright William Inge’s less-gory-but-equally-memorable sentimental favorite “Bus Stop.”

No shock that Signature chose “Sweeney Todd” as part of its 20th anniversary season lineup. Well known for interpreting Sondheim, Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer has twice staged the show in the past. Can’t comment on those efforts — didn’t see them — but there’s certainly lots to like about his third stab at the tuneful tale of a wronged barber’s bloody revenge.

For starters, Sherri Edelen is wonderful as Mrs. Lovett, the imminently practical sidekick to the show’s throat-slitting title character. Whether singing about her meat pies (“The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest”) or her romantic designs on the demon barber himself (“By the Sea”), Edelen’s Mrs. Lovett is a delightfully nuanced blend of bare-knuckled capitalism and feminine vulnerability — very funny.

Esteemed local actor Edward Gero plays Sweeney Todd as a vengeance-bent zombie eager to settle a score with Judge Turpin (a coldly cruel Chris Van Cleave), the corrupt letch who falsely imprisoned Sweeney, raped his beautiful young wife and stole their daughter Johanna. In lesser hands, Gero’s automaton approach might prove ridiculous, but he pulls it off superbly.

Almost equally obsessed is the kindly sailor Anthony Hope (played by pretty actor Gregory Maheu) in his pursuit of his imperiled love interest, Johanna (an aptly pale and yellow-haired Erin Driscoll). As the young lovers, both Maheu and Driscoll do justice to Sondheim’s brilliant score, here pared down and remarkably performed by just four musicians. Another standout in the strong 19-person cast is talented Sam Ludwig as the oblivious and follicly challenged Tobias Ragg.

With bucketfuls of blood, body bags and sundry other gruesome details, Schaeffer puts a pleasing dark spin on what Sondheim already calls his “black operetta.” James Kronzer, who’s gay, has imagined a scary foreboding construction site of a set realized with multi-tiered scaffolding, corrugated iron and dilapidated lumber. Sweeney Todd descends on to stage in a clever little open elevator. He sends his lifeless victims down an efficient shoot, and Mrs. Lovett perfunctorily grinds body parts into minced meat using a standard cement mixer.

Like many of Broadway’s best, both Sondheim and the late Inge came with baggage: Sondheim endured a privileged but unhappy childhood soured by his sexually predatory mother; and Inge, a lifelong depressive who committed suicide in 1973, struggled with addiction and his sexuality. Their works sometimes resonate with hope but typically offer little cushion for life’s losers.

With his 1955 Broadway hit “Bus Stop,” Inge continued his inimitable way of giving voice to America’s heart, particularly the Midwest’s unheralded inhabitants. Olney’s production, very capably staged by Austin Pendleton, is faithful to Inge’s intent.

Stranded overnight in a Kansas diner during a March blizzard, a few bus passengers, the driver, a couple of waitresses and the local sheriff learn a few things about life, love and one another. The cast includes Boyd Harris as Bo Decker, a raucous cowboy in hot pursuit of Jean Lichty’s B-girl and self-styled chanteuse, Cherie. James Slaughter is excellent as the drunken professor fond of underage girls. And most noteworthy is Judith Ingber who gives a beautifully understated, naturalistic performance as Emma Duckworth, a sensitive Shakespeare-quoting teenage waitress.

Stephen Dobay’s set is a meticulously recreated diner circa mid-1950s — so inviting it makes you want to amble onstage and order a cup of coffee and a grilled cheese. Outside the restaurant’s paned windows, a steady snow falls throughout the nearly two-hour piece. Similarly, through the expansive windows of Olney’s lobby, patrons see drifts of still pristine white snow that have yet to melt.

‘Sweeney Todd’
Through April 4
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va.
$52 to $76
703-820-9771
www.signature-theatre.com

‘Bus Stop’
Through March 14
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md.
$26 to $49
301-924-3400
www.olneytheatre.org

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