The Siegel Column

Sweeney gets sliced and diced

When a beloved piece of theater is brought to the screen, you can count on either one of two different critical reactions. The first comes when the director goes out of his or her way to be faithful to the original. A recent example would be Susan Stroman's adaptation of her own stage version of The Producers. The reaction? The film critics hated it; not cinematic enough, they cried. Dull. Uninspired filmmaking, etc., etc. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the recently released rendition of Tim Burton's take on Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. This one, the movie critics love. Why? Because when all is said and sung, the end result isn't a film version of Sondheim's musical; Tim Burton has so effectively put his own stamp on the material that it is unquestionably first and foremost a Tim Burton movie that, oh, by the way, happens to have a score by Stephen Sondheim. Though a lot of Sondheim fans - and presumably Sondheim himself - like the film, we decidedly do not.

Where to begin? Burton does indeed attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, though he does so without the brilliant song that introduces the story. You know you're in trouble when the filmmakers start cutting great songs out of the score. As for Depp, we understand the need for a movie star to sell the film to the general public, so casting the far too youthful looking Johnny Depp is an acceptable compromise. He only sings half badly and he certainly acts the part ferociously. But for Burton to cast his own wife, Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett is just plain perverse. Though she acts the role exceedingly well, she simply can't sing the songs. In the featured villainous roles, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall could not be bettered but Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony (who happens to sing his role very well) and Jayne Wisener who plays Johanna, are otherwise forgettable.

Nobody wants a film version of a much-admired stage musical to succeed with the general public more than theater folk. We went to the critic's screening of the film before it opened, with great anticipation, thinking (foolishly?) that Tim Burton was, perhaps, just the right filmmaker to bring Sweeney Todd to the screen. But Burton was apparently drawn more to the book than he was to the score and therein lies the problem: it was never the book that made this musical soar; it was the score that so effectively and insidiously drew us in to the macabre tale. There is nothing insidious about the film; Burton goes after bloody and disgusting visceral effects that too often blunt lyrics or make them redundant. Pounding cockroaches with a mallet while singing about the worst meat pies in London brings the filmic action to your attention rather than the words. The ideal melding of musical and cinema is when the two are in balance; that's not the case here.

It was reasonable to assume that the movie would open decently with the first week carried by Tim Burton devotees and Johnny Depp fans. It has become clear, however, that despite very good reviews by the nation's film critics who, as a rule, generally abhor theater, the movie was destined to fall off the table, its own throat slit by the excessive violence and blood that only serve to get in the way of what might have been a great movie musical.

From Bad to Worse: Celia

We finally caught up to the long-running hit musical based on the life and music of Celia Cruz. Coming in already fond of the music and delighted that the production has tapped into the Spanish-speaking audience, we expected to see a top-notch show. Carumba! While Xiomara Laugart, who sings the role of Celia Cruz, has a terrific voice, another woman "acts" the role. She shall remain nameless because the play is designed to be in Spanish and there are only two performances per week in English. Nonetheless, it seems to these two Anglos that Celia Cruz is getting a bum deal in this show; the book is dreadfully obvious and lumbering. The actor playing Celia's husband, who narrates the story, is as obvious and lumbering as the book. It is, to put it simply, a bad show. To be fair, the audience gave it a standing ovation. Go figure ...

On a Brighter Note ...

As we teeter on the brink of 2008, we wish you only great theater, wonderful music, sparkling lyrics - and the good health and prosperity to allow you to enjoy them throughout all of the New Year and beyond.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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