Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed and Designed by John Doyle. Musical Supervision and Orchestrations by Sarah Travis. Light design by Richard G. Jones. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Wig & hair design by Paul Huntley. Resident music supervisor David Loud. Music coordinator John Miller. Originally Directed on Broadway by Harold Prince. Originally produced on Broadway by Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, Robert Fryer, Mary Lea Johnson, Martin Richards in association with Dean and Judy Manos. Cast: Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, with Donna Lynne Champlin, Manoel Felciano, Alexander Gemignani, John Arbo, Diana Dimarzio, Benjamin Magnuson, Lauren Molina, Merwin Foard, Dorothy Stanley, Benjamin Eakeley, Elisa Winter, and Mark Jacoby.
For years, we've been hearing quiet (and not-so-quiet) rumblings about musical theatre's increasingly elite nature, with America's native populist art form more and more isolating - and pricing - itself away from casual theatregoers. Whether you've laughed off Broadway's operatization or pondered it yourself, with the new revival of Sweeney Todd, this can no longer remain a silent concern.
John Doyle's production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterwork is the baldest example yet of a musical revival that doesn't give a damn about its audience. Yes, such recent debacles as David Leveaux's Nine and Fiddler on the Roof, Jonathan Kent's Man of La Mancha, and Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma! seemed like covert attempts to undermine the American musical. But not in recent memory has a production so intentionally alienated itself from all but the staunchest devotees.
This is the Sweeney Todd for people who don't need to be convinced to like Sweeney Todd; it's not preaching to the choir, it's preaching to other priests. So abandon hope all ye who enter the Eugene O'Neill without having memorized every lyric of Sondheim's songs and every line of Wheeler's libretto. Even then you'll need an iron grip on your encyclopedic knowledge of the story to follow the action as Doyle prescribes it: He does everything possible to disconnect the stage action from what's being talked and sung about.
He's set his production (for which he also designed sets and costumes) in a mental institution, with various doctors and other staff members assuming roles in the story of a vengeful Victorian barber and the doting woman who bakes his victims into pies. Well, maybe. It looks like everything is supposed to take place in the mind of one prisoner (who begins the show in a straitjacket), but why he'd picture his own surroundings instead of somewhere different is anyone's guess. If the reenactment is happening in real time, it's never made clear why any of the "performers" would have access to so many dangerous objects (including razors and, at one point, a rusty hacksaw).
Whatever Doyle's intent is with this scattered, half-formed approach I can't explain. Nor can I justify his requirement that each member of this 10-person cast play his or her own musical instrument. Perhaps, in the low-budget world of offbeat English theatre, such a choice simply allows a Sweeney Todd to appear where it might not otherwise materialize.
But Broadway shows - especially those, like this one, with a $101.25 top ticket price - should have higher standards. They used to - when Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979, it had some 27 players in the pit and another 27 onstage. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations made sharp distinctions between the darkest moments, such as when Sweeney loses his mind after failing to kill the judge who sent him away and raped his wife, and the instances of invigorating comedy, such as the first-act finale in which Sweeney and his cohort Mrs. Lovett devise their deliciously devious plan.
Sarah Travis, treating Tunick much as Judge Turpin treated Sweeney's wife, has devised lifeless new orchestrations that work with the actors and their instruments but deliver absolutely no sense of sweeping musicality. Sweeney's breakdown scene now plods where it once blazed. When Sweeney's now-grown daughter Johanna and her secret beau Anthony scheme to escape the Judge's clutches, their gorgeous romantic duet "Kiss Me" (sung in counterpoint with the Judge chit-chatting with his corrupt Beadle) is perfunctory, not even hinting at the near-orgasmic release so integral to the original scoring.
Of course, Sweeney Todd has played in many theaters to great success, likely with any number of different, reduced orchestrations. The show even survived a severely scaled-down 1989 Broadway revival that similarly couldn't offer much musical satisfaction, but reportedly compensated (as all such productions should) with increased focus on the characters so central to the saga.
Doyle does not make an equally tenable attempt. He stages vast swaths of scenes with the actors facing the audience, or otherwise not directly interacting with each other. He's removed nearly all the musical buttons that allow the audience to applaud and register their role in the theatrical experience. He's effectively castrated all the male characters, making the Judge at most an academic presence, the Beadle a disinterested outside observer, and Sweeney an everyday Joe who's just had a bad day at work. This isn't innovative, this isn't intense, and this isn't Sweeney Todd.
The performers do as well as any could under the circumstances: Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony) and Lauren Molina (Johanna) are utterly flavorless, but sing prettily and play their cellos attractively; Mark Jacoby and Alexander Gemignani are accorded no chances to inject menace into the Judge and the Beadle, but don't disappoint within their extremely narrow scope; Manoel Felciano, as the prisoner ostensibly imagining all this and the young boy Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing, acts, sings, and plays the violin, clarinet, and keyboard with equal aplomb. The less said the better about Donna Lynne Champlin, who absurdly plays the male barber Pirelli as an androgynous, nightmarish understudy Emcee from a reform-school production of Cabaret.
Michael Cerveris shatters expectations as Sweeney, bringing more weight to the role than one would have thought possible given his dynamic but restrained performances in Titanic and last year's Assassins (for which he won a Tony). If he doesn't effortlessly plumb the depths or scale the heights of Sweeney's rangy music, Cerveris's complete performance is as good as anything here can possibly be.
Finally, there's Patti LuPone. The good news is, you can understand 98% of what she sings (an excellent percentage for her). The bad news is that she's hardly allowed to be Mrs. Lovett. Looking like a Goth waitress from a lesbian biker bar, she's denied nearly every opportunity to sink her teeth into the role's comedy, especially in her first number, "The Worst Pies in London." It should highlight London's degradation and foreshadow the show's man-eat-man plot twists, but here it falls flat as a conversational explication on... well, who knows.
LuPone is, however, responsible for the few legitimate laughs present. Most notable: During the face-off between Sweeney and Pirelli, she parades downstage, blasting on her shiny tuba (where did the institution get that?), and wriggling her ample (and heavily padded) posterior in the most glamorously distracting of scene-stealing ways.
It has nothing to do with the scene, but so what? It's one of the few times
the production displays any texture, and at least LuPone's comic oom-pahing
provides some temporarily increased musical depth. It's a nice break from
what is otherwise elevator music at best, though it's not enough to make
this onetime musical thriller into something not-so-thrillingly Muzakal.