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Sweeney Todd Directed by Harold Prince At the Metropolitan Center through Jan. 31

STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street shocks like an amusement park's house of horrors, slitting the emotions and jangling open nerves, but the chill melts quickly and the musical ultimately fails. For his first stab at opera, Sondheim appropriated the hackneyed Victorian tale of Sweeney Todd, a barber who exacts revenge for his wife's death by slashing the throats of her murderers. Sweeney's neighbor, a Mrs. Lovett, capitalizes on their punishment by grinding the corpses into filling for her famous meat pies. It's all rather messy.

Other composers have turned turgid melodrama into art--Puccini exhumed Belasco creakers to create Madama Butterfly and La Fanciulla Del West--but Sondheim's score achieves little distinction. It flounders in a pool of notes instead of gushing with passion. Only the lushness of "Pretty Woman," the dissonance of "Epiphany," and the insouciance of "A Little Priest" salvage the first act from musical banality. Even here, the Metropolitan Center's gully of an orchestra pit prevents Sweeney's blazing razor attack from terrorizing even the first row.

Elsewhere, Sondheim resorts to an amalgam of garish Music Hall tunes, catchy Broadway melodies, and pseudo-classical arias. The nadir occurs with the bouncy "By the Sea," which sticks out lie a toenail in a meat pie.

Sondheim's lyrics convey a sense of character wholly lacking in his music. Whether ghoulishly preparing a menu of "shepherd's pie peppered/with actual shepherd" or acrimoniously bristling:

There's a hole in the world

Like a great black pit

And it's filled with people

Who are filled with shit the lyrics reveal his continuing romance with words.

Yet the verbal intricacies that are his trademark fall prey to melodic ineptitude. Syllables lost in an overly complicated soprano line and choral numbers that have the gentility of a shouting match leave us frustrated. Though nearly always glittering, certain lyrics seem gratuitous as Hugh Wheeler's book parcels out plot in neat bits of dialogue. With such a story-laden vehicle, tangential songs become tiresome; we yearn for songs with more plot in them. Sondheim and Wheeler sensed this tendency for Sweeney to drag and judiciously chopped out half of an appallingly dull number in moving the show from New York to Boston.

DIRECTOR Harold Prince, trying to bring some fluidity to the production, relies heavily on the mechanics of an extremely mobile set to permit his cast movement. At best, he creates the seamy atmosphere of a Hogarth woodcut. But his ingenious erector set wears thin, and his staging occasionally seems more suited to a Greenwich Village opera society. Even Prince's chillingly stark Prologue becomes cheapened in retrospect, as the Sweeney leitmotif is repeated ad nauseum. Ultimately imagination turns to calculated effect--blasting whistles, billowing smoke, showering blood--that titillate, but never deeply touch us.

Ignoring the inconsistencies, Angela Lansbury and George Hearn resolutely fashion three dimensional characters out of cardboard cut-outs. Arms akimbo, Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett radiates a sweetly amoral survival instinct. Her bumps and grinds add a necessary looniness to this character who makes meat pies out of men.

As the bitter, cynical Sweeney Todd, Hearn is more hard-boiled in his determination for revenge than the New York Sweeney, Len Cariou. Though he's missing Cariou's subtle glee, Hearn nonetheless rivets us to Todd's obsessive mission. Failing once to exterminate the dastardly judge, his "Epiphany" is the anguished outcry of a crazed beast in its dying fury. The production's demonicism reaches its zenith in "A Little Priest", when Hearn and Lansbury combine to offer the occupants of society's beehive as ingredients for their delectable pies.

Technically, the refurbished Metropolitan Center enhances the production. Unlike Broadway where the actors often got lost on the mammoth stage, this scaled-down version of Eugene Lee's foundry set hovers overhead preventing any air from invigorating the denizens of London's sordid slums. Ken Billington's lighting generally succeeds where the score fails by sharply evoking the character's moods. Piercing spotlights heighten Sweeney's agonizing inner turmoil, while a stupefying pinkish orange haze overpowers mottled ground tones to emphasize the community's moral desolation and confusion. Flashes of sunshine intrude briefly, but the furnace's Hellish red glow settles on Fleet Street and damns it irrevocably.

Despite its flaws, Sweeney Todd will attract an audience. In this age where we crave "cheap" thrills people will mindlessly spend $25 a seat for a package expertly stuffed with surprises, shocks, and the star appeal of Ms. Lansbury. Using art's name, Messrs. Sondheim and Prince lamentably succumbed to this trend, producing an illconceived, ill-begotten extravaganza. Their estimable talents should not be wasted in this manner.