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A CurtainUp Review

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His Skin was Pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of Gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

--- from "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"

Sweeney Todd
Patti LuPone and Michael Ceveris (Photo: Paul Kolnick)
Multi-tasking wasn't in our lexicon back in 1846 when a razor-wielding barber who turned his victims into meat pies appeared in a penny dreadful serial "The String of Pearls: A Romance" by Thomas Prest. Multi-tasking was yet to emerge on the lexical horizon when Stephen Sondheim transformed the demonic barber's story into a musical with a higher body count than Hamlet. But now that multi-tasking has become a way of life and the cost of mounting a musical can exceed the $10million mark, why not a multi-tasking Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street revival? Why not indeed! Especially, when British director John Doyle has given a whole new meaning to the old saw about necessity being the mother of invention with this cost-cutting but eccentrically entrancing actor-musician production.

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 barber’s 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 ("There’s a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world inhabit it / And its morals aren’t 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.

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheele,rbased on an adaptation by Christopher Bond.
Direction, Scenic and Costume Design: John Doyle
Cast: Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett--tuba/orchestra bells/ percussion ), Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd-- guitar/orchestra bells/percussion), John Arbo (Jonas Fogg--bass), Donna Lynne Champlin (Pirelli--accordion/keyboard/flute), Manoel Felciano (Tobias --violin, clarinet, keyboard), Alexander Gemignani (The Beadle -- keyboard, trumpet), Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin--trumpet/orchestra bells/ percussion,) Diana DiMarzio ( Beggar Woman--clarinet), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony--cello/ keyboard) and Lauren Molina (Johanna-cello).
Lighting Design: Richard G. Jones
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Hair & Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Music Supervisor: David Loud
Music Coordinator: John Miller
Musical supervision and orchestrations: Sarah Travis
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49 St., 212, 239-6200
From 10/03/05; opening 11/03/05.
Mon through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM; beginning 11/6 Tues @ 7:00PM, Wed through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed, Sat & Sun @ 2:00PM br> Tickets: $101.25 to $36.25, Wednesday matinees $96.25 and $36.25
Closing 9/03/06 after 349 performances and 35 previews, then launching a national tour.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 9th performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • The Ballad of Sweeney Todd/Company
  • No Place Like London/Anthony, Beggar Woman
  • The Barber and His Wife/Sweeney Todd
  • The Worst Pies in London/Mrs. Lovett
  • Poor Thing/ Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett
  • My Friends/ Mrs. Lovett
  • Green Finch and Linnet Bird/ Johanna
  • Ah, Miss/ Anthony, Beggar Woman
  • Johanna/ Anthony
  • Pirelli's Miracle Elixir/Tobias, Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett, Company
  • The Contest/ Pirelli
  • Johanna/Judge Turpin
  • Wait/ Mrs. Lovett
  • Kiss Me/Johanna, Anthony
  • Ladies in Their Sensitivities/ The Beadle
  • Quartet/ Johanna, Anthony, The Beadle, Judge Turpin
  • Pretty Women/ Sweeney Todd
  • Epiphany/ Sweeney Todd
  • A Little Priest/Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett
Act Two
  • God,That's Good!/ Tobias, Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd, Company
  • Johanna/ Anthony, Sweeney Todd, Johanna, Beggar Woman
  • By the Sea/Mrs. Lovett
  • Not While I'm Around/ Tobias, Mrs. Lovett
  • Parlor Songs/The Beadle, Mrs. Lovett
  • City on Fire!/ Tobias, Johanna, Anthony, Company
  • Final Sequence/Anthony, Beggar Woman,Sweeney Todd, Judge Turpin, Mrs. Lovett, Johanna, Tobias
  • The Ballad of Sweeney Todd/ Company
The  Playbill Broadway YearBook
The Playbill Broadway YearBook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide


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