Plenty of theater lovers and music lovers loathe musical theater. Personally, I'm neither attracted to nor repelled by actors suddenly breaking into song, but I can understand why some people find that disjunction intolerably grating. But Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's horror masterpiece, running now at the 5th Avenue Theatre, could be the musical that converts you.

This is Seattle's first professional production of the "penny dreadful" about the demon barber of Fleet Street, driven to serial-killing madness (he kills his customers and bakes them into meat pies) after a corrupt judge wrongly imprisoned him and raped his wife. Sweeney Todd is live-action horror—spectacularly bloody and through-composed with a complex and lushly dissonant score.

"It's gothic horror—Grand Guignol," said director (and 5th Avenue artistic director) David Armstrong, referencing the popular Parisian gore/comedy theater of the 19th century. The Sweeney Todd story has been around for more than 200 years, but Sondheim's version (based on a play by Christopher Bond) adds an element of revenge and mayhem against authority that appeals to us moralistic moderns. Do we, unlike the Guignol audiences of the 1800s, need an excuse of cosmic injustice to enjoy the public bloodletting? "A thousand horror movies do that," Armstrong countered. "What makes this art is the element we can deeply identify with. We look at Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney's sidekick, and somehow take that leap with her. We say, 'You go girl! You gotta do what you gotta do!'"

That's what makes Sweeney Todd more interesting and challenging than your usual musical fare (though Armstrong insisted that "done right, there's nothing more challenging than Oklahoma! or Carousel"). It's a deliciously wicked spectacle with a complex score that isn't a set of simple A-B-A songs but, as musical director Ian Eisendrath described it, "a set of motifs. It's dissonant but lands well on the ear." Will the subscribers cotton to it? "Some of our audience might think it's too much," Armstrong said. "But you can get away with challenging work if you do it very, very well."

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A new play at the Kirkland Performance Center is stirring slight controversy among marketing directors at local newspapers and radio stations, including KEXP. Newspapers and radio stations are refusing to run ads for the three-man play about race relations called N*gger, W*tback, Ch*nk (the asterisks are part of the advertised title). "They're afraid of the title, even though the show is about racial tolerance," said KPC's marketing director, Vic Valdez. The Seattle Times, The University of Washington Daily, The Spectator (Seattle University), and radio stations KEXP and KBCS (Bellevue Community College) all declined to run the ad. "There's nothing technically illegal about the ad," said KEXP marketing manager Courtney Miller. "But we felt a play with a racial slur in the title would be inappropriate. We have to be mindful of our listeners."