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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Sweeney Todd and Warm Beer Cold Women

Sweeney Todd
Judy Kaye and David Hess
Stephen Sondheim isn't known for a sunny outlook. Even his most upbeat shows have complex, mature emotions hiding inside, where characters grow, but don't necessarily find happiness. Sondheim's view turned jet black for Sweeney Todd, the musical he crafted with Hugh Wheeler about the vengeful barber slitting throats and cooking the remains into meat pies in Victorian London.

Obviously, you're not going to get Brigadoon here, but Sweeney Todd makes Chicago or West Side Story look like jolly rides in the park. Despite its grim nature, Sweeney Todd makes for a thrilling night at the theater, especially in the capable hands of the current Broadway tour, which plays in Minneapolis this week.

Directed by John Doyle (who also helmed the recent revival of Company), the musical finds the nine performers almost constantly on stage. They not only act and sing, but also provide the show's musical accompaniment. It adds a level of artifice to the evening - one that does the show well, as it distances the audience just a bit from the grim proceedings on stage. The staging also helps with this - the bloodletting is largely symbolic, done with a gesture across the throat, the pouring of a bucket of blood and a high, piercing note that can damage the hearing and cut into the soul.

The evening is anchored by David Hess as the titular character and Judy Kaye as his conspirator Mrs. Lovett. Hess freely mixes the character's gravity (he has been vastly wronged by the system and robbed of his wife, daughter and former life) with his growing madness. Kaye makes Lovett a different kind of villain - one willing to use her business partner's madness for her own financial devices, but who also dreams of a love life with Todd.

The show is packed with doomed love and "bad touch" moments, such as when the evil Judge Turpin (expertly played by Keith Buterbaugh) makes a play for Johanna, Todd's daughter and his longtime ward. Johanna believes she has found love in na´ve sailor Anthony, and their affair provides the only glimmers of light in the show; and they truly turn out to be glimmers, as the two descend deep into the darkness of the story as they try to escape their fate.

How dark does it get? Well, the gentlest love song in the entire show is one Todd sings to his "friends" - his shaving razors. Sweeney Todd isn't for the faint of heart, but it's worth hearing for Sondheim's difficult but enthralling score and the inventive staging crafted by Doyle and finely executed by the cast.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through February 10 at the State Theatre. For tickets and information, call 612-673-0404 or visit www.hennepintheatredistrict.org.

Photo: davidallenstudio.com


The Guthrie Theater Warm Beer Cold Women

Warm Beer Cold Women
Robert O. Berdahl
Tom Waits is another songwriter not interested in writing traditional love songs. His tales of drunken losers and down-on-their-heels lovers have attracted a solid cult of listeners for more than three decades. Robert O. Berdahl's labor-of-love musical compilation brings together 30 songs culled from Waits' long career, exploring the characters that inhabit the words along the way.

Warm Beer Cold Women doesn't have a plot, per se. Instead, we see the people from the songs - played by Berdahl, Katy Hays and Dennis Curley - as the scenes from their lives are played out. It's a simple concept that places the emphasis where it belongs - on the words and the music.

Since the show surveys Waits' entire career, the songs do take some odd twists and turns. The romantic poet who created jazz-tinged ballads in the 1970s gave way to a far more eccentric artist in the 1980s, as he began to combine his stories into complete narratives. Early on, the music focuses on tuneful takes like "I Never Talk to Strangers" and the legendary (well, in the Twin Cities anyway) "Xmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis." The first jarring moment comes about a third of the way in, when the junkyard New Orleans jazz of "Rain Dogs" kicks in. From here, the music oscillates between the songwriter's theatrical excesses - such as the Brechtian turn of "Reeperbahn" (from his 2002 opera Alice) - and a slow consolidation of all of Waits' interests. He's a songwriter who became more honest as he aged - and comes off as someone younger and brighter in later years.

In the end, Warm Beer Cold Women is about the music, and the trio of singers and the ace backing band do it all with aplomb. From Berdahl's bluesy rumble on "Ice Cream Man" to Hays' sanguine hooker to Curley's epic take on "Jockey Full of Bourbon." The show turns into a perfect way to warm up during the chilly winter months.

Warm Beer Cold Women runs through February 17 at the Joe Dowling Studio in the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis . For tickets and more information, call 612.377.2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.

Photo: George Byron Griffiths


- Ed Huyck



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