nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 10, 2005
The new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd has garnered a lot of attention and understandably so. British director John Doyle’s production re-imagines Sweeney as if Marat/Sade had been turned into a musical and made to resemble a Nine Inch Nails video—more than enough to strike fear into the heart of purists who remember Harold Prince’s original Broadway production (now legendary in Broadway lore) and its subsequent televised version. Where Prince’s version was epic and operatic, employing a cast of nearly 30 and an orchestra almost as large, Doyle’s heavily deconstructed version turns Sweeney into a claustrophobic potboiler and pares down the cast to ten actors, all of whom double as the orchestra. The good news is that purists have nothing to fear: this new Sweeney is a triumph from start to finish. In a town that is sometimes top heavy with high concept deconstructions it’s refreshing to see one that actually serves the story instead of itself. The true measure of Doyle’s achievement here is that, despite its drastically re-imagined look, his is a legitimate take on Sweeney that stays true to the power and intensity inherent in Sondheim and Wheeler’s masterpiece.
Taken from a 19th century British legend, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a barber who returns to London after a long (and false) imprisonment to seek revenge on the cruel judge who sentenced him to jail, and who stole his wife and daughter in the process. Sweeney quickly sets himself up in new digs above a failing meat pie shop run by the long-widowed (and morally flexible) Mrs. Lovett. When Sweeney’s bloodlust gets the better of him, and he begins “practicing on less honorable throats” in anticipation of murdering the judge, Mrs. Lovett hatches an idea for disposing of the corpses that also benefits the pie shop. Get it?
If this doesn’t exactly sound like typical Broadway musical fare…well, you’d be right. Except that Sondheim can successfully turn most things into palatable Broadway musical fare. For a man who, by the time Sweeney first debuted, had already converted Roman comedy, Western imperialism, an Ingmar Berman film, and the malaise of modern urban couplehood into some of the most challenging and beloved musicals of his generation, this tale of a murderous barber did not pose many problems. On the contrary, it brought out many of his best qualities. Sondheim’s score is, for my money, the crown jewel in his extraordinary canon. His music has never been richer than it is here, his lyrics never more insightful or soulful, and his finely-honed sense of rhyme is sharpened like the finest of razor blades. Sondheim’s cleverness and wit come to full flower in a story where you would expect to find neither, and he finds places inside even the blackest of hearts for the audience to sympathize with.
Wheeler’s book—one of Broadway’s finest—also deserves mention for effortlessly juggling several complicated subplots (which include the potential rescue of Sweeney’s daughter by a lovestruck sailor, the nagging presence of a ubiquitous beggar woman, and the appearance of a rival Italian barber and his simpleton sidekick), and striking the perfect balance of dialogue and song. Wheeler constructs excellent book scenes that know how much information to convey through speech before handing the rest off to Sondheim.
Doyle’s version of Sweeney builds tension by confining the action to a very small section of the stage. All ten actors remain on stage for the entire show (even after several of them have died) surrounding the playing area on three sides, suggesting that there is no escape for these characters—from each other or themselves. And while Doyle keeps the cast in constant motion (actors who aren’t in a given scene frequently find themselves moving to strategic locations where their presence either enhances a scene or provides well-placed foreshadowing), the stage never feels cluttered or cramped.
The most potent way Doyle builds tension, though, is by eliminating all of Sondheim’s scene change music. There is no set to change, so—with just a quick re-arranging of chairs—the actors move from one scene to the next without interruption. While this sometimes causes confusion about where the characters are, it also robs the audience of the opportunity to applaud—an unexpected and unnerving advantage. By taking that away, the audience gets wrapped up in the story in much the same way that the characters do. There is no relief to be found in this Sweeney Todd. The only chances the audience gets to breathe are at intermission and curtain call. And, at both times on the night I attended, the audience unleashed their pent-up reaction to such a thunderous and rapturous degree that I could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that I was at a rock concert.
With this much going on, the actors have their work cut out for them. But they are all up to the task. Patti LuPone is superb as Mrs. Lovett, making her smart and crafty, instead of daffy. Dressed like a middle-aged Sally Bowles, she also adds a welcome dose of sex to Sweeney: her Mrs. Lovett has a libido and the will to use it. Her portrayal reaches its apex during the Act I finale “A Little Priest,” in which Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett scheme to stuff his victims into her meat pies. Despite its gruesome subject, LuPone turns this classic duet into a playful and lusty form of foreplay.
As Sweeney, Michael Cerveris is excellent, raging and brooding aplenty. But he also illustrates Sweeney’s descent into madness in a creepily convincing fashion. His is a Sweeney consumed by such a single-minded thirst for revenge that it can only lead to an unstoppable and irreversible insanity. (I should add that both he and LuPone are in fine voice, and sound wonderful both separately and together.)
In other roles, Manoel Felciano shines as Tobias, the simple-minded boy Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing, by taking ownership of Sweeney’s signature song, “Not While I’m Around,” and making it sound fresh and new again. Mark Jacoby turns in a solid performance as Judge Turpin, and Alexander Gemignani is terrific as his menacing enforcer, the Beadle. Donna Lynne Champlin is impressive as Pirelli, the Italian barber, and newcomer Diana DiMarzio makes the most of the thankless (but important) role of the Beggar Woman. As Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, and her maritime paramour, Anthony, Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson make the perfect starstruck lovers. And John Arbo lends ample ensemble support, as well as some terrific bass playing. All the actors prove themselves to be highly skilled musicians. I dare say they could all sub in a Broadway pit band any night of the week.
Doyle and company have really created something special here. By eschewing epic sweep in favor of boiler room intensity, they have made Sweeney Todd new again for the next generation of theatergoers. Attend this tale and rejoice in its savage magic.