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A CurtainUp Review
by Elyse Sommer
Doyle's directorial vision, with its Brechtian flavor and flair and inspired borrowing from maddest of madhouse dramas, Marat/Sade, makes this third Broadway production truly new again. But whether grand like Harold Prince's 1979 production, or medium lite like Susan H. Schulman 1989 revival or Eric Schaeffer's at Washington's Signature Theatre in 1999, it's the resilience of Sondheim's score and lyrics that makes Sweeney Todd so adaptable and allowed Doyle to create the piquantly petite guignol production that brings a super-sized dose of fresh blood (figuratively as well as literally by the bucket) to the re-telling the grizzly tale.
Like theaters following the old actor-manager model of having directors and actors also handle management tasks, the actor-musician model that Mr. Doyle pioneered at his Watermill Theatre has its inherent problems -- in this case, watching the ten cast members juggle their instrument playing with singing Sondheim's often tricky score can be a bit distracting (I spent a good bit of time trying to see how the various performers took each others' places at the keyboard). Ultimately, however, the potential drawbacks are enriching because they work so well.
The cast elegantly handles the multi-tasking challenge -- especially Patti LuPone, who has already distinguished herself with a concert performance as Mrs. Lovett. She has brushed up on her schoolgirl tuba playing, without any diminishment of her diva-ish vocalizing. With her mesh knee hose and figure exaggerating, short black dress, her sexy and sassy Mrs. Lovett is one you won't soon forget.
Michael Cerveris embodies the "pale of face" and "odd-eyed" demon barber. He's eerie, very physical and, like LuPone, oddly sexy. His entrance from the main prop, a coffin, establishes the pitch black mood. Cerveris handles guitar, orchestra bells and percussions as effortlessly as he delivers a cornucopia of haunting songs. As the big black coffin is his point of entry as well as the counter of Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, a judge's bench and a lover's alcove, so a smaller white coffin does double duty as Sweeney's deadly barber chair and an infant coffin.
With the multi-tasking concept applied to the props as well as the actors, the only additions to the coffins are some chairs and an upstage ladder and ceiling high shelf containing assorted bric-a-brac of daily or normal life. No scenic recreations of Victorian London! No realistic barbers chair or oven to bake the human flesh filled pies! As Doyle trusts his performers to combine their instrumental and vocal skills, so he entrusts viewers to use their imagination to fill in the images evoked by Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's lyrics.
For anyone needing a plot synopsis: Sweeney Todd was not always a vengeance focused, blood thirsty killer, but a loving husband and father -- that is, until he was exiled without just cause to Australia for fifteen years by the story's villain, Judge Turpin (Mark Jacoby) who wanted him out of the way because he lusted after his wife. The play begins with the wronged husband, now disguised as Sweeney Todd, back in London, finding his wife apparently dead and daughter Johanna (Lauren Molina) the ward of none other but the evil and still lascivious judge. Sweeney finds a willing helpmeet in Mrs. Lovett (LuPone), whose bakery dishes up "The Worst Pies In London."
The insane asylum framework sacrifices the underlying class struggle of the original and might be a bit confusing at first, but it fits the insane rage that drives the barber beautifully and allows viewers to see the entire story as an inmate's nightmare. That inmate whom we first see in a straightjacket and gagged, turns out to be the the half-witted Tobias (Manoel Felciano) and the gag, a red scarf knitted by Mrs. Lovett when she's not singing or playing the tuba or orchestra bells. Feliciano plays this part with appealing gentleness and his "Not While I'm Around" duet with Mrs. Lovett is one of the show's many musical highlights.
Once Tobias is released from his straightjacket, the story introduces the entire company with a riveting rendering of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Sweeney enters seething with rage at the world to which he's returned ("Theres a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world inhabit it / And its morals arent worth / What a pig could spit / And it goes by the name of London").
The entire cast moves seamlessly from portraying their main characters and being part of the ensemble singing and instrument playing (I've included the instruments played by each performer in the production notes and if it strikes you that the instruments seem especially suited to the characters portrayed, you're right). Richard G. Jones's lighting is full of dazzling blazing red moments. Not one to ask more of his cast than himself, Doyle also multi-tasks, adding just enough blood-red accents to his stark black and white pallette.
Whether the economic benefits of this reduced cast Sweeney and the mostly ecstatic first round of reviews will break the Sondheim curse (great critical reception, so-so box office short-circuiting hopes for long runs), remains to be seen. If the packed house and enthusiasm of the audience at the performance I attended is any indication, this Sweeney Todd will sing and sizzle for a long time. I hope so.