It doesn’t seem to matter if you are seeing Stephen Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd" for the first time, or like me, the sixth, it remains a spellbinder. Certainly the roars and the gasps of audience approval that filled the Kirby Arts Center at the Lawrenceville School last Saturday evening (July 9) attested to the musical’s ability to shock and to thrill. And if this admirably realized inaugural production of the Princeton Festival rarely reaches the heights of horror that some other productions have achieved, director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, abetted by the two leads, Harry Dworchak and Kathryn Cowdrick, knows how to keep an audience shivering with delight.

Based on the old English horror story, "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Sweeney Todd," as adapted by Hugh Wheeler, is a prime example of classical Grand Guignol dramaturgy. It tells the eerie tale of a London barber who goes bonkers after escaping from an unjust imprisonment imposed by a lecherous judge with a covetous eye for the barber’s wife and daughter. Todd (Dworchak) is a deranged character, who does a bit of slicing while his equally wicked culinary associate, Mrs. Lovett (Cowdrick), does the dicing in this delectably unwholesome story.

Even with repeated hearings, Sondheim’s grandiose score continues to fill our senses with haunting musical treats, not the least of them being the tart and witty lyrics that get the attention they deserve from the projected supertitles. From the ominous spine-chilling opening chords of the organ to the finale with the entire company reprising "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," one was aware that musical director Richard Tang Yuk had total control of this eerie musical’s values. He conducted a full complement of 35 musicians, the superb principal singers, as well as the vocally strong ensemble, with a firm command of the adventurously passionate score only occasionally allowing the musicians to drown out some singers who did not have a firm command of their consonants in a venue that is acoustically imperfect.

As the title character who "served a dark and vengeful God," Dworchak, a native of Hershey, Pennsylvania, whose impressive credits include roles at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and La Scala, has turned this demanding role into a bloody occasion. You won’t soon forget this barber’s pitiless eyes and colorless face as he prepares to give the ultimate shave to his next victim. Dworchak’s robust baritone is most expressively exercised in the creepy ballad, "Pretty Women." Cowdrick’s spirited Mrs. Lovett, although never less than delectably amoral and devious, is seen with more gregarious than grotesque inclinations. Cowdrick, who does a show-stopping turn with "The Worst Pies in London," happily made Mrs. Lovett seem less a caricature of an eccentric than a victim of her unbridled passion for Todd. As a team, they plunge right into the rigors of that horrifically funny duet "A Little Priest."

If the romantic leads, Anthony (Scott Hogsed), a sailor, and Johanna (Sarah Pelletier), Todd’s daughter, don’t set the city of London on fire with their clinches, that remains after all Mrs. Lovett’s job with her overworked oven. Looking somewhat like Billy Budd on shore, Hogsed wraps his tenor voice around the rapturous aria, "Johanna," as splendidly as Pelletier spins her silvery soprano through the poignant "Green Finch and Linnet Bird."

The overall balance of odd characters is well thought out. The grimy apprentice Tobias (John Easterlin) was an audience favorite and garnered the evening’s biggest applause with his impassioned ode to Mrs. Lovett, "Not While I’m Around." Evangelia Kingsley put plenty of oomph into the role of the crazed Beggar Woman and Douglas Perry was a particularly unctuous "Beadle." David Kellett put the prescribed panache into his role as the black-mailing rival barber Pirelli. Bev Appelton stepped into the role of Judge Turpin (usually performed by David Ward) at the performance I caught and offered a respectable account of a despicable human being.

One could see that designer Marie Miller had fun with the 19th century costumes. The various settings of London’s embankment area are efficiently realized across the large stage by designer Mark Morton. Benny Gomes’ lighting designs were, for the most part, exemplary. Overall, this rippingly staged and performed production bodes well for the future of this new company. What is immediately in evidence is the Princeton Festival’s artistic integrity, its proposed mission to provide an opportunity for emerging artists to work with more experienced professionals, and its ability to come through with a polished and rewarding show.

Sweeney Todd, remaining performances Friday and Saturday, July 15 and July 16, the Princeton Festival at the Kirby Arts Center at the Lawrenceville School. $75; $52; $25. 609-537-0071.

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