Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece of a musical. Nearly sung through with a brilliant score by Stephen Sondheim, the dark story is rich with eccentric and compelling characters, splashes of humor and heartwrenching tragedy. Though Sondheim has spoken of the musical as "a small horror piece," it was initially presented on Broadway in a large-scale production staged by Hal Prince with metaphorical overtones of the effects of Great Britain's industrial age on the common man. The show was met with a mixed response from audiences at first, some of whom weren't ready for a musicalized story of blood-thirsty revenge and the commerce of cannibalism. There have been numerous productions since, some retaining Prince's framing and others going for a different interpretation, such as the small-scale production at Circle in the Square with about half the cast members of the original and three musicians. The most recent Broadway revival (which came to the U.S. via the UK's Watermill Theatre and the West End) featured director John Doyle's now-trademark style of having a minimal cast accompany themselves instrumentally. The production, with a cast of ten actor-musicians, won over most of the critics, but it divided audiences. Many felt Doyle's design (in addition to directing, he was responsible for the set and costume design as well), which sets the piece in a mental institution with the story played out through the memory of a straight jacketed Tobias (or played by the other mental patients a la Man of La Mancha - that is not clear), made the plot impossible to follow for Sweeney neophytes and didn't do justice to Sondheim's score.
That somewhat controversial production began a national tour in August of 2006 and recently landed at Heinz Hall. Starring Judy Kaye and David Hess, the production features several performers from the Broadway production. I do believe that many details (some crucial) of the plot will be missed by those who have not seen a full production (or the new film version) and have not done any research. There is no set that relates to the story and very few props. Benjamin Barker, a barber seeking revenge for being framed by Judge Turpin and sent off to prison in order for the Judge to pursue Mrs. Barker, has returned to London and changed his name to Sweeney Todd. In anticipation of killing the Judge and the Judge's cohort The Beadle, Sweeney slits the throats of men who visit his shop for a shave or a haircut. Mrs. Lovett, who owns the pie shop downstairs, comes up the bright idea of using the corpses of Sweeney's victims as a meat substitute. However, there is no barber chair, there are only imaginary meat pies, and there is no baking oven. Those who are very familiar with the show can appropriately imagine the missing pieces and go along with the impressionistic atmosphere as depicted by actors who are playing instruments and, for the most part, covering more than one role without character costumes. Those not so familiar may need a little assistance from veterans.
A benefit that can be enjoyed by all, even those who have no idea what's going on in the story, is the surprisingly full presentation of the music by most of the cast members (Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's contributions are instrumentally limited). Sarah Travis is credited with the new inventive and very effective orchestrations for this intricate score. Another benefit is a most glorious performance of Mrs. Lovett by veteran stage actress Judy Kaye. Known to theatre aficionados for her many impressive performances on Broadway and on other stages (most recently, a Tony Award nominated turn in the two-person Souvenir), Kaye wins the audience over immediately and presents an interesting and delightful Mrs. Lovett, singing perfectly and fleshing out every inch of character provided for her by the writers. Every word of the tricky lyrics can be heard due to her precise delivery. It is a legendary performance that tour audiences are lucky to witness.
As the apple of Lovett's eye, the demon barber is played by David Hess, who brings his own unique performance. His Sweeney is mad from the start: by both definitions, he is pissed off and crazy. Hess staggers about the stage with alternating vacant and deranged facial expressions. It's a bit more over the top than other more simmering Sweeneys, but Hess sings the role superbly. He and Kaye deliver exquisite vocal performances and are paired very nicely.
Supporting actors Lauren Molina (Johanna), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony), John Arbo (Jonas Fogg) and Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman) performed the same roles in the Broadway production (Hess and Kaye were replacements for leads Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, as well) and are accomplished instrumentalists as well as actors. Magnuson and Molina make a fine pair of young lovers, and they add comic relief as well as lovely interpretations of some of the score's most delightful songs: "Johanna," "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and "Kiss Me." DiMarzio is terrific in her roles, and provides lovely clarinet accompaniment.
The role of Tobias, or Toby, is usually played on stage by a grown man, making Toby often come across as a mentally slow adult and not a child, as the story depicts him. In this production, Edmund Bagnell falls somewhere in between: his Toby is very childlike, but not quite "all there." As the despicable Judge Turpin, Keith Buterbaugh is appropriately creepy. Two roles are cast here (as well as in the Broadway production) a bit against type: the competing barber Pirelli is played by a woman (Katrina Yaukey) and The Beadle is played by a man (Benjanmin Eakeley) who is not old enough to fit the tale's backstory. Once you accept that, along with the production's other quirks, the two actors' fine performances can be enjoyed straight on. Eakeley, in particular, has a beautiful voice and, if his Beadle isn't quite squirm-inducing, he is menacing.
The Sweeney Todd tour moves on to Minneapolis and Louisville this month. See www.sweeneytoddtour.com/ for complete tour information.