CAMBRIDGE — To achieve maximum, gut-wrenching impact, any production of “Sweeney Todd” has to be willing to unnerve its audience and to plunge into the musical’s depths of darkness.
Under the direction of Ryan Mardesich, the Moonbox Productions staging of “Sweeney Todd” is and does.
This gripping production of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterwork, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, represents an auspicious debut for Moonbox as the resident theater company of Arrow Street Arts, near Harvard Square.
In the title role, the golden-voiced Davron S. Monroe is less wild-eyed and more dapper than your usual Sweeney. Monroe plays the vengeful barber with a kind of icy fire. When Monroe’s Sweeney handles the gleaming, straight-edge razor he has not held for 15 years but will soon put to lethal use, the scene has a nearly sacramental stillness.
But there’s nothing quiet about “Epiphany,” when Monroe’s Sweeney erupts into raw fury near the end of Act One. That’s the musical’s turning point: Having missed his chance to finish off Judge Turpin (a very good Todd Yard), the man who raped his wife after dispatching him to an Australian penal colony, Sweeney embarks on a random killing spree to slake his thirst for revenge.
Matching Monroe stride for stride in Moonbox’s “Sweeney Todd” is Joy Clark as Mrs. Lovett, a boisterous pie-shop proprietor who figures out a way to, shall we say, monetize Sweeney’s murderous impulses — a business strategy entertainingly put into song with the Lovett-Sweeney duet “A Little Priest.”
Clark’s performance is informed by her evident awareness that while Mrs. Lovett is a comic figure, she is also, ultimately, evil. There is a certain pathos in the mix, too: Her love for Sweeney will never be reciprocated; he’s dead inside. Clark lets us see all three facets of Mrs. Lovett.
While also devising the show’s choreography, the actress has clearly thought through even the smallest details of her portrayal, right down to the half-gurgle, half-warble sound she makes while impersonating a seagull in “By the Sea.”
Set designer Cameron McEachern has created a world bathed in blood-red, from the neon sign advertising “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies” to the metal platforms that lead to the bakehouse where Sweeney’s victims are turned into menu items, from the blouse Mrs. Lovett wears as she cheerfully goes about her work to the checkerboard pattern on the Arrow Street Arts stage.
Caitlin Zerra Rose and Eli Douglas crack your heart with their portrayals of the most tragic figures in “Sweeney Todd”: the Beggar Woman, a kind of crazed Cassandra roaming the streets of 19th-century London; and Toby, a young assistant at the pie shop who pledges to protect Mrs. Lovett, with a conviction as passionate as it is misplaced, in “Not While I’m Around.”
The orchestra, located upstage, does excellent work (the conductor and music director is Dan Ryan). Also assets to this “Sweeney Todd” are Meagan Lewis-Michelson as Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s toady, and Ethan DePuy as the barber Pirelli, who sees himself as Sweeney’s rival but becomes his first victim instead.
Eva Akina Huertas Colliou’s portrayal of Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, who has become Judge Turpin’s ward, needs to be more sharply defined. Then again, it’s not an easy role to play; Johanna is an almost abstract figure, idealized by Anthony (Dallas Austin Jimmar), the sailor who is in love with her, and by Sweeney, and, creepily, by Judge Turpin.
Director Mardesich has opted to include a scene that some productions of “Sweeney Todd” omit, a soliloquy in song in which Judge Turpin struggles to tamp down the “hot red devil” of his lust for Johanna. Evidence of a guilty conscience has never seemed consistent with the judge’s overall vileness, and the same is true again here.
Sondheim’s career took off in 1957 when he matched his words to Leonard Bernstein’s music in “West Side Story.” But when “Sweeney Todd” premiered on Broadway in 1979, Bernstein was repulsed by it, according to “Shy,” a compulsively readable memoir by Mary Rodgers that was written with Jesse Green.
Rodgers quotes Bernstein as saying the following (”or words to that effect”) about the new work by his onetime collaborator: “Disgusting, enough to make you want to throw up in your galoshes! I guess Steve finally got to write a musical that suits his temperament perfectly.”
Since he died in November 2021, Sondheim’s work has been omnipresent. His final musical, “Here We Are,” opened this week at the Shed, in New York. In September, Lyric Stage Company of Boston presented an excellent “Assassins.”
The first-ever revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” (starring Daniel Radcliffe, Lindsay Mendez, and Jonathan Groff) is a hit on Broadway. So was a similarly star-studded staging of “Into the Woods” that ran from August 2022 to January of this year. And so is a production of, yes, “Sweeney Todd” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford.
Sorry, Lenny. I think Steve won this round.
SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Ryan Mardesich. Music direction, Dan Ryan. Choreography, Joy Clark. Sets, Cameron McEachern. Lighting, Kat C. Zhou. Presented by Moonbox Productions at Arrow Street Arts, Cambridge. Through Nov. 5. Tickets $65, with pay-what-you-wish options available. www.arrowstarts.org