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A CurtainUp Review
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
By Les Gutman
This season brings Signature Theatre to its tenth anniversary and will also see its founding Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, make both his Broadway and West End directorial debuts. Sweeney Todd is the perfect vehicle for celebrating both. As Sweeney was the first musical produced by Signature, this new production affords an opportunity for reflection on past achievements -- Signature's development into a preëminent Sondheim showplace -- but even more so for an assessment of the craft that has catapulted Schaeffer into the musical theater fast lane..
The bottom line: Schaeffer is thoughtful, masterful and simultaneously focused on high concept and the lowliest detail. My frame of reference is the Harold Prince-directed original Sweeney: enormous, ambitious and innovative. It was a heady time in which America's greatest then-functioning musical theater writer and his directing counterpart were trying to marry the traditions of musical theater and opera. (No one would ever get as close to succeeding as Sweeney; the euro-efforts that followed swerved sharply away from the musical theater legacy.) Schaeffer jettisons any pretense and, working in one-third as many cubic feet of performing space as Prince -- I'm guessing here -- successfully delivers a version that never lumbers under the considerable weight of the original and yet is every bit as viscerally potent. Without sacrificing any of the shows complexity, Schaeffer finds a way to stage it gracefully. And even more explicitly gruesome than ever. Yummy.
There's no getting around the sordid facts. Sweeney Todd, then a barber named Benjamin Barker (Norm Lewis), was wrongly sent to prison by the evil Judge Turpin (Lawrence Redmond, in a performance of unequaled intensity and sophistication). The sentence fit well into the designs Turpin had on Barker's lovely wife, Lucy. As the show opens, still-pissed-off Sweeney returns to London in the company of a young sailor, Anthony (Chad Kimball), and is determined to search for his wife and their daughter, Johanna (Jennifer Royall). Quickly meeting a widow, Mrs. Lovett (Donna Migliaccio), who sells meat pies -- "The Worst Pies in London" -- he learns that Lucy poisoned herself and that Turpin has taken Johanna as his ward and "soon-to-be wife" (irresistibly mixing Sondheim references).
Before you know it, Mrs. Lovett, who quickly figures out the Todd/Barker connection, presents Sweeney with his old, prized razor, which she has been storing, and sets him up in business over her pie shop. "Bright ideas keep popping in [her] head," and soon they have established a vertically integrated conglomerate: he slits the throats of patrons upstairs; the dead bodies become the emat supply in her bake shop below.
With ample fillings for her pies, business is booming and, but for the rants of a "half-crazed" Beggar Woman (Dana Krueger), life is good. Todd and Lovett have even become surrogate parents to a slow but sweet young man, Tobias (Michael Sharp), who became homeless when his employer, Pirelli (John J. Kaczynski), a competing barber, had to be, uh, liquidated by Sweeney. Meanwhile, Anthony has fallen in love with Johanna, and a cat-and-mouse game ensues in anticipation of their elopement. Not much more of the story needs to be told here, except perhaps to note that, with the possible exception of Macbeth, English-speaking theater has never seen as many dead bodies on a stage.
Not to take anything away from Schaeffer's brilliant vision, but I'm not sure he could have pulled it off without Donna Migliaccio (who is reprising her role from the earlier Signature production). To say that I was skeptical anyone could fill Angela Lansbury's shoes as Mrs. Lovett (and I saw Dorothy Loudon try) is an understatement. And yet, Migliaccio finds her own voice (and what a voice!) and portrays a wonderful, funny, manipulative Mrs. Lovett that is all her own. Norm Lewis gives us a Sweeney that is a surprise, painstakingly acted and more cerebral than ever before. The more internalized emotions of this Sweeney -- punctuated by outbursts of pure hostility which Schaeffer, quite literally, has directed into the faces of the audience -- are a revelation. But there is something wrong, or at least there was on opening night. Lewis, who normally has plenty of lung to fill the Signature space, sang with a restrained if not impaired voice. I'd prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, because if a conscious decision, it was a poor one. He was vastly overpowered not only by the orchestra but also by his singing partners, most especially the superb Migliaccio.
The remainder of the cast is, on balance, excellent, although not without exception. The young lovers have terrific voices. But while Kimball seems perfectly cast, Royall is all-wrong -- a case of blind, voice - driven casting that opera audiences are used to but that musical theater-goers simply won't countenance. And while Redmond was, as noted above, exceptional as Judge Turpin, his Beadle (Jimmy Smagula) was not particularly memorable. Michael Sharp's Tobias, although not rising to the exquisite level of Ken Jennings, was quite satisfying but Dana Krueger's Beggar Woman was pedestrian and disappointing. Best of all, perhaps, was the ensemble, which is called upon not only to portray a variety of small roles -- almost all of the men's throats become targets of Sweeney's razor -- but also to function as the Greek chorus Sondheim has employed to chilling effect. One of the triumphs of Schaeffer's direction is the care with which he has given each member individuality and an opportunity to show off their often-striking voices.
The supporting elements of this production are in all cases top-notch. Lou Stancari's set is a sooty maze of rooms shoehorned from three or more levels into virtually a plane but somehow, miraculously, always making sense. This unit set Sweeney exploits the parameters of the Signature "black box" to the nth degree, giving the sense at times that the audience is in a hovercraft piloted by Stancari and Schaeffer, which gently touches down when they are ready to proceed. Lighting is dramatic and effective; and costumes are rich in detail and extensive in scope. Jon Kalbfleisch conducts the fine-sounding orchestra with great range, affording the score all of the warmth, and chill, serenity and bombast, it requires.
Bravo. Go. See. But first, Hurry. These tickets are going to be hard to come by.