Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
He served a dark and a vengeful god ...
He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again."
-- "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"
Slit. Bleed. Bake. Eat. Repeat.
So goes the motif of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a vendetta operetta about the titular tonsorial terror who cares little about repeat business, his razor slicing the throats of customers, their flesh baked into dee-lish meat pies.
Sure it's a musical. Need you ask?
Flashing back to 1980, the show into its second year on Broadway with George Hearn as Sweeney (replacing original lead Len Cariou), one remembers a youngster departing the Uris Theatre with a stockpile of nightmares to last weeks. (So what if I was a youngster of 23?)
Horror hasn't been that horrific since. Or hilarious. Or gorgeous. Sondheimian genius: Exhibit 1.
Both a concert version -- Friday at the Henderson Events Plaza and Sunday at Lake Las Vegas -- and a full production by RagTag Entertainment (to benefit Golden Rainbow) at Green Valley Ranch Resort starting Oct. 18, tell of Sweeney's grisly revenge on 19th-century London after a corrupt judge imprisons him and steals his wife (whom he defiles) and daughter (whom he's about to). Sweeney teams with pie-shop owner Mrs. Lovett, who concocts the idea of people as menu items -- "fresh supplies," she says.
"We're not holding back on anything," says Shawn Hackler, director of the full production. "The language is there, the blood is there, the murders are there."
Language? That would be Sweeney's mantra: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with (follow the rhyme to the expletive) and the vermin of the world inhabit it -- but not for long."
Broadway's last word on grand guignol theater -- derived from Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, a Parisian playhouse specializing in horror stories from 1897-1962 -- "Sweeney" also has been labeled a "grusical" and is based on a fictional character depicted in various forms over a century and a half. Though considered an urban legend, some insist a real Sweeney swung his razor through London.
If you've only seen Tim Burton's 2007 film -- while well-made and impeccably acted by Johnny Depp, earning an Oscar nod -- you've not seen "Sweeney Todd."
Horror on film is terror with a built-in sense of distance and safety. Aided by suspension of disbelief, horror as live theater is a living, breathing threat. (Stage clips are available on YouTube.)
While the movie dispensed with "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" to quickly get to the story, the play commences with the nerve-rattling orchestral theme and ominous "Ballad" sung by creepy, hollow-eyed street Londoners.
Emerging from the filth, fog and catacombs of bleak, industrialized London, they advance menacingly toward the audience, voices climbing in shrill cadences to sing the plot, screaming "Sweeney!" "Sweeney!" until the monster suddenly appears, fresh from hell, to take up the tune.
"He's going to be thrust forward to the edge of the audience, covered in blood with a full body of Londoners behind him," Hackler says about the local Sweeney, David Andino. "(Audiences) will already be nervous about what's to come. When we drop Todd dead center with the audience, it will be a powerhouse moment."
Onstage, Sweeney is not only literally yards from you, he's also an entirely plausible monster -- not Freddy Krueger haunting your dreams -- while we're entirely plausible victims. Insane, when you consider it: Barbershop customers meekly offering up their throats to a stranger with a razor. Are we nuts? (Spare us the indignant letters and emails, all you sane barbers -- you're cool, but how about just trimming the sideburns?)
Chilling as well is the humanizing of evil with the audience's realization that several monsters are onstage -- and Sweeney isn't necessarily the worst. While revenge destroys him, his thirst for it is an impulse we all understand. The judge who blithely ruins his life and twists justice is arguably more monstrous and destructive to the fabric of society, while Sweeney's flesh-baking accomplice Mrs. Lovett has no vengeance on her mind -- just murder as a means to improve her pies and increase business.
Think you can only scare people with music as sound effects? Think again. More than 80 percent of "Sweeney" is music, much of it in unsettling minor keys, either sung or accompanying dialogue with sinister motifs.
One of Sondheim's musical masterstrokes is keeping audiences off-balance by setting the most gruesome acts to the most gorgeous melodies, such as "Pretty Women," a duet by Sweeney and his intended victim, the judge, and "Johanna," an aching ode to Sweeney's daughter reprised during his bloodiest spree.
Mixing humor accomplishes the same uneasy effect during "A Little Priest" as Sweeney and Lovett hilariously ruminate on how different types of people will taste, and "By the Sea," a fantasy sequence in which Lovett dreams of a blissful life with Sweeney after retiring from murdering and baking people into pastries.
"Epiphany," however, is pure terror as Sweeney explodes in rage, blade slashing the air, after missing a chance to slice open the judge, his ultimate prize. While Johnny Depp's Sweeney menaced the camera -- out of his mind, but curiously antiseptic -- a stage Sweeney stares male theatergoers in the eye, razor pointed at them, declaring: "I want you bleeders."
Film in many ways can transport audiences where theater can't, but theater pumps blood into "Sweeney Todd" in a way celluloid never can.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.