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Chris Caswell and Kim Kollar in Sweeney Todd. Photo by Renee McVety

By Kay Kipling

No matter how many times I’ve seen the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd, I still get a little thrill with the show’s opening notes—and often more thrills and laughs as the evening progresses. That’s still the case with Venice Theatre’s Stage II production of the famous show about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, even if there are a few stumbles along the way.

There’s nothing really inherently wrong with the basics of the production, which under Murray Chase’s direction has strong leads (Chris Caswell as Sweeney, Kim Kollar as Mrs. Lovett) and a small but effective ensemble cast. You probably couldn’t squeeze more, really, into the confines of the Pinkerton Theatre, and Chase’s concept for the show deliberately keeps its audience up close and personal with the actors and the action. From the moment you enter, Tim Wisgerhof’s set design encases you in its dark surroundings, from the gritty streets of Victorian London to Mrs. Lovett’s bakery (where an ominous fire glows within the oven) to a hellhole of a lunatic asylum.

The actors tread all around you, and you might even be offered a meat pie (or dragged onstage as a customer in the play’s shaving contest scene between Sweeney and his competitor, Pirelli (Joe Sergio). So there’s no lack of involvement with the story and its characters.

And Caswell and Kollar are certainly well cast and have a rapport that comes from working together in many previous productions. Caswell goes to a darker place here than he has in just about anything I’ve ever seen him in, and he’s compelling in his bloodthirsty search for revenge, especially on his solo Epiphany. Duets between the two, whether the comic closer of Act I, A Little Priest, or the dreamier By the Sea, are a treat.

And there are good performances by others in the cast, too, from Sergio as the flamboyant Pirelli to Rik Robertson as the servile and smarmy Beadle to Ryan Hunek as the urchin Toby. (He alternates the role with Zachary Thompson.) Hunek’s younger and smaller than I happen to have seen Toby played before, and perhaps that makes his sad tale all the more poignant.

Alyssa Marie Hunek as Sweeney’s long-lost daughter, Johanna, and Douglas Landin as the sailor who falls in love with her strain sometimes with their vocals, but it’s not serious enough to make us lose interest in their tribulations at the hands of her lecherous guardian, Judge Turpin (Robert Austin). And Lisa Figueroa has some touching moments at Lucy the Beggar Woman.

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Douglas Landin and Alyssa Marie Hunek. Photo Renee McVety

But on opening night, the flow of the show sometimes halted or felt tentative, which may or may not be due to the last-minute replacement onstage of the show’s music director, Sheila Plummer, with pianist/conductor Peter Madpak (who will alternate with Keven Wu in that role), accompanied only by cellist Alyson King. If so, it’s understandable that the timing between the musicians and the singers was sometimes off, or that Kollar (usually assured in her delivery) faltered with Sondheim’s demanding lyrics now and then.

Whatever the cause, I suspect that with a few more nights of performances under their belts, the cast of the show will come together with more confidence to accompany their energy. Sweeney Todd continues through Feb. 14; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.

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