Also see Wally's review of Boeing Boeing
The story of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is known to most theatergoers by now, as the show has been consistently popular since its opening in 1979. One wonders whether a new musical about a barber who slits the throats of his customers and a bakerwoman who grinds those bodies into meat for her pies would ever make it to Broadway nowadays. After all, the songs were all original and it wasn't not based on a pre-existing movie. Thankfully, theater producers were more adventurous 30 years ago.
I'm always impressed by Stephen Sondheim, but not a worshipper. I think that oftentimes his rhyming is too precious by half, and in the service of nothing so much as his own ego. But Sweeney Todd is about 95% perfect. The line "I feel you, Johanna" sounds phony to me, but its follow-up, "I'll steal you, Johanna," is fine. The only other part that I think doesn't work is the "City on Fire" bit when the inmates escape from the asylum. Everything else is remarkably effective, and there are even three or four memorable melodies, which may not seem like a lot considering that the show is pretty long and about 80% sung, but that's three more than in most of the other musicals for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.
Director Hal Simons framed the gruesome story as a nightmare. In 19th century England, naughty children were told "Better be good, or Sweeney Todd'll getcha." (American audiences cannot be expected to be aware of this, and I only know it because of the director's note in the program.) So before any music started, we saw a large bed rolled out with a young boy (Evan Medrano, a good little actor) in it, being admonished by a nanny. And, just as he drifted off, Sweeney Todd himself rose up out of the bed from under the covers and, from that moment on, we attended his tale until he jumped back into the bed at the end. Terrifying for the child, and unsettling for us too. (The bed and boy were onstage at the beginning, during the entire intermission, and at the end. Wheeling the bed onto and off the stage was a bit cumbersome, though, and we got the point in the prelude.)
This production was in a small theater, holding an audience of fewer than a hundred, sitting on both sides of the playing area, and that made it all the more effective. No one was more than three rows from the action. The orchestra was chamber-sized, only six musicians, but it sounded much larger under the direction of Lina Ramos. (This is partly due to the orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, who does almost all of Sondheim's shows, and is finally getting the credit he deserves.)
The set by Vic Browder used the space cleverly. A chute from Sweeney's barbershop upstairs to Mrs. Lovett's bake shop downstairs could not be accommodated in this small space, but it worked just fine that dead bodies popped out on the other side of the theater. Costumes by Joe Moncada, lighting by Myers Godwin, props by Mary Godwin, and sound design by Norm Fletcher were all first-rate. The production was coordinated by Vicki Marie Singer, who deserves congratulations for getting such talent together.
Hal Simons did a masterful job with a cast of twenty. The staging was fluid (except for that bed) and he got wonderful performances out of everyone. But I do think it's always a directorial mistake to have people who have been killed on stage then move their limbs or, in one case, get up and rejoin the ensemble while the lights are still up. Just have them dragged off by the other cast members, of which there were plenty.
TJ Bowlin mostly glowered as Sweeney, which is OK since the character is a tormented soul, and he has an excellent voice that didn't really need the amplification. Among the supporting players, those who made a big impression were Josh Griffin as the Judge, Brian Clifton as the Beadle, Esther Moses Bergh as the Beggar Woman, and the always adventurous Bryan Daniels as Pirelli.
I feel bad that this review is appearing too late to convince anyone to see this Sweeney Todd, but at the least, I can encourage Musical Theatre Southwest not to wait another 20 years before doing this gripping show again.
Sweeney Todd, a musical by Stephen Sondheim with book by Hugh Wheeler, based on a play by Christopher Bond, was presented by Musical Theatre Southwest October 18 through November 10, 2013, in Albuquerque. For upcoming productions, see www.musicaltheatresw.com.