For theatergoers who like their musicals light, fun, and frivolous, Sweeney Todd may come across as painful as the cut of a razor blade. The show has been turning the stereotype of what a Broadway musical represents on its head for nearly thirty years now. So how has a musical about a crazed, murderous barber continued to have productions and even a recently released high-profile motion picture based on it? It is the remarkable skill of the writing, the multiple layers of emotional and historical subtext, and the biting social commentary conveyed that make this show one of the most unconventional theater classics ever. In the current national tour, based on the recent Broadway revival directed by John Doyle, Sweeney Todd is stripped down to its bare essentials. The results vary, with fans of the show enjoying a fresh theatrical perspective on the material, but newcomers to the piece are forced to fill in too many gaps in the plot.
Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a barber (Sweeney Todd) who returns to Victorian England after years imprisoned on false charges by a pious judge who lusted for the barber's wife. Todd soon learns that his wife poisoned herself out of shame after being raped by the wretched official, and the judge adopted Sweeney's daughter as his own; Todd now thinks only of revenge. He is assisted by Mrs. Lovett, who runs the meat pie shop below Todd's old barber shop. While awaiting the chance to exact vengeance on the judge, Sweeney descends into madness and decides to "practice" on customers who come in for a shave, by slitting their throats. Even more perverse, Mrs. Lovett uses the newly available "supplies" for filling her meat pies. Doesn't quite sound like your typical Rodgers & Hammerstein show, does it?
The book by Hugh Wheeler is based on an adaptation of the story by Christopher Bond. The show incorporates narration (e.g. the multiple versions of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "The Barber and His Wife"), melodrama at its best, nuanced foreshadowing, farce, and numerous other storytelling devices with great skill. With Sweeney Todd being a mostly sung piece, it's somewhat difficult to tell where Mr. Wheeler's work ends and Sondheim's begins, but it all works brilliantly.
Without a doubt, Stephen Sondheim is the greatest living theater composer/lyricist, and Sweeney Todd is his masterpiece. The score contains character-specific musical motifs and a variety of styles, including British music hall ditties, operatic "want" songs, soaring ballads, an emotionally charged "Epiphany," and story-songs providing sufficient character histories. The lyrics are typical Sondheim: intelligent, witty, and full of multiple meanings. The score provides the necessary mysterious and angst-ridden atmosphere and tension. Highlights include "My Friends" (a love song by Sweeney to his razor blades!), "A Little Priest," "Pretty Women" and "Not While I'm Around." The score and book are at their best in the act two song "Johanna," in which Sweeney sings a beautiful ballad about missing his daughter while at the same time murdering customers, thus creating a spectacularly contrasting juxtaposition of theatrical genius.
Many theatergoers might already be familiar with Sweeney Todd. The musical has been staged locally a number of times, and the motion picture version starring Johnny Depp was seen in local cinemas this winter. However, Director John Doyle has staged this production unlike any of those. Mr. Doyle's trademark directorial approach is to have his actors also serve as the onstage orchestra. Cincinnati audiences are more accustomed to this device than other cities because Doyle's production of Company employing the same technique debuted at our Playhouse in the Park prior to its New York run. The result for Sweeney Todd is a show that is winningly stylistic, intense, and perfect in tone. With the staging stripped of all but essential movement and with few bells and whistles (except for the excruciatingly loud ones heard each time a person dies), both the humor and horror of Sweeney are enhanced and the focus is put squarely on the wonderful music and lyrics. However, all of this is accomplished at the expense of clear storytelling, and creates a somewhat muddled overall concept (When is it set? Is the story being played out in one character's crazed mind? How many different things can that mini-coffin symbolize?) While those familiar with the musical may find this version to be brilliantly rewarding and theatrically thrilling (this writer included), it is a poor introduction to the piece for newcomers, with most scenes suffering from the limited blocking due to the actors having to also play their instruments.
The cast of this production is excellent, and some performances surpass the quality of those in the recent Broadway revival. As Sweeney, David Hess shows a larger emotional range as the deranged barber seeking his own brand of moralistic justice than Michael Cerveris did in New York, and is a stronger singer. Judy Kaye may not be as well known as Broadway's Mrs. Lovett, Patti Lupone, but her exquisite vocals and brilliant acting choices as the calculating instigator of much of the horrific mayhem are even better than Lupone's work. CCM grad Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony), Lauren Molina (Johanna), Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman) and John Arbo (Jonas Fogg) reprise their roles from the Broadway revival to great effect. Rounding out the talented cast is Edmund Bagnell (Tobias), Keith Buterbaugh (Judge Turpin), Benjamin Eakeley (The Beadle) and Katrina Yaukey (Pirelli). Not only does this cast sing and act the roles with professional skill, but their musicianship as instrumentalists is a wonder to hear and view. Most of them play more than one instrument, and their ability to handle these extra duties along with their vocal performances is astounding.
Director Doyle is also this production's set and costume designer. The minimalistic black and white unit set uses coffins, buckets, ladders, chairs and shelves of knick knacks in unique ways, but is high on symbolism. The costumes likewise do little to clarify the vagueness of the overall concept. The stark lighting by Richard G. Jones is effective in establishing tone and mood.
How an audience member might react following their attendance at a performance of the national tour of Sweeney Todd is likely based larger on their previous knowledge of the piece. Newcomers will probably be a bit confused, while Sweeney fans will appreciate the new take on the material. Nevertheless, the talent on stage can't be denied. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 2, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.