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Chicago by John Olson

Sweeney Todd
Drury Lane Theatre

Sweeney Todd
Gregg Edelman, Liz McCartney and Company
With the 2005 Broadway revival setting the action inside an asylum as the memories of a demented Toby, and Tim Burton's 2007 feature film version invoking the conventions of classic horror movies, is it perhaps time for a lighter, funnier Sweeney? That's what the Drury Lane and director Rachel Rockwell believe, and I for one am entirely ready for such an approach. Add in the fact that the Sondheim music is given its full due by music director Roberta Duchak, a vocally adept cast of musical theater performers that meet the demands of the semi-operatic score (sorry Mr. Depp and Ms. Bonham-Carter) and a fully satisfying orchestra of nine musicians that don't have to assume roles in the show as well play instruments (apologies to Mr. John Doyle) and we have, for the first time in a while, a Sweeney that is allowed to just be Sweeney. And with two Broadway performers of significance—Gregg Edelman as Sweeney and Liz McCartney as Mrs. Lovett—a Sweeney Todd that is a major production of the piece.

Ms. McCartney puts herself right up there with the best of the Lovetts. Her powerful and clear voice handles the vocal demands of the role quite perfectly. She's a better singer than Lansbury and nearly as funny, and a less mannered singer and a more versatile comedienne than LuPone. Her Nellie Lovett is earthy and maternal—duplicitous, yes, but for reasons she believes are all in everyone's best interest. McCartney ought to be a top go-to gal for Mrs. Lovett from here on in based on this performance. Her co-star Edelman, on the other hand, is capable, but not a Sweeney for the ages. He can sing the part well enough (though I heard his voice crack a few times in his higher register), but he doesn't show Sweeney's descent into madness dramatically enough or with much nuance. Edelman's Sweeney is an understandably defeated man—who wouldn't be after 15 years in prison after an unjust conviction that tore him away from wife and daughter? But mad enough to become a serial killer? Not really.

Edelman's difficulties may be attributable to the direction, which keeps the villains from seeming too wicked and sands the edges of them all. Judge Turpin (Kevin Gudahl)—the heartless jurist who would sentence children to death, falsely convict Sweeney to get at the wife whom he lusts after, abuse her when he gets the chance, and seek to marry their teenage daughter—is shown here to lack self-awareness rather than possess an evil heart. (And of course, his self-flagellating "Mea Culpa" is not performed here.) His Beadle, played by George Andrew Wolff, is more a pretentious fop than a threatening toady. And Tobias, played by the teenager Jonah Rawitz, seems to be a pretty decent kid from the neighborhood without a lot of issues, despite the fact that he's been abducted for slave labor by the dastardly Pirelli, the charlatan barber who threatens to expose Sweeney as an escaped convict. The sum of all this is that, while the cast gives effective comic performances, their limited menace makes the musical's transition into the murderous actions of the last half-hour sudden and awkward. Further, the tone of the performances isn't always a perfect fit to the shadowy and spooky environment created by set designer Kevin Depinet and lighting designer Jesse Klug.

Even so, the fresh take on the characters and the nearly uniform strength of the vocals make this Sweeney an entertaining and musically satisfying journey. The production boasts first-rate Anthony and Johannas—he (Travis Taylor) all stalwart and steadfast, she (Emily Rohm) a ditzy blonde with the voice of an angel. Exceptional singing is also heard from Gudahl, Wolff, Heidi Kettenring (as the Beggar Woman), and George Keating (a full-voiced and funny Pirelli). The ensemble's vocals soar as well. There are a few disappointments—Rawitz is a little breathy in "Not While I'm Around" and Garth Helm's sound design is a little tinny and over amplified—but on the whole this is a terrific performance of the score, with Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations skillfully reduced by Carey Deadman.

The production design makes effective use of the smallish Drury Lane stage, with a bridge running diagonally across it. A series of rubber strips—much like those one might find in a meat locker—hang from it. Joanna's second-story window is played from the bridge and, on that upper level, some effective projections by Mike Tutaj establish the 19th century London setting. Projected blood drips down the screen whenever Sweeney disposes of a victim. A rolling house serves as the bake shop/barbershop—and in a most ingenious touch, we see silhouettes of Sweeney's victims falling from the second level barber shop through the bake shop (behind a translucent panel) into the trap door into the stage. The costumes by Theresa Ham are as stunning as may be seen anywhere.

Chicago has hosted some of the best productions of Sweeney Todd ever, from the first national tour with Lansbury and Hearn through LuPone and Hearn at Ravinia, Lyric Opera's 2002 staging with Bryn Terfel, the Doyle-directed tour with Judy Kaye and David Hess, and even Walter Stearns' 2004 Porchlight production. This is another landmark production to add to that list, and even if it dials up the mirth at some expense to the macabre, it's a production closer to the original Hal Prince staging than these others.

Sweeney Todd will be performed at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace, through October 9, 2011. For tickets, call the Drury Lane Theatre box office at 630.530.0111, call TicketMaster at 800.745.3000, or visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com.


Photo: Brett Beiner

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-- John Olson



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