Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sweeney Todd

You can't be a serious musical theater fan without a working knowledge of Stephen Sondheim, musical theater's greatest living composer. Until now, my only acquaintance with the maestro had been from afar, through watching his work on DVD or listening to Broadway cast CDs.

Of the three Sondheim shows I've seen on DVD, "Sweeney Todd," with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in the 1979 Broadway production, is by far my favorite. I love the setting, in a seedier part of 19th-century London, the themes of class division, injustice and the desire for revenge, and the score's mixture of humor and poignancy.

So I was excited about seeing the tour of the 2005-2006 Broadway revival that starred Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, with the actors doubling as musicians. And I'm so glad I went. I had a great view and a great time from the mezzanine of Boston's Colonial Theatre.

David Hess plays Benjamin Barker, a barber unjustly imprisoned and exiled to Australia by Judge Turpin, who covets his wife. Upon his return, he is told his wife, Lucy, has killed herself and his daughter, Johanna, is now the judge's ward. Adopting the name Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street vows to get his revenge.

Hess, his hair looking slightly disheveled, is convincing as a man driven mad by what he has endured. When Sweeney, reunited with the tools of his trade, sings, "these are my friends, see how they glisten," then raises his straight razor skyward and proclaims, "now my right arm is complete," he is unhinged and scary.

Judy Kaye is Mrs. Lovett, the entrepreneurial maker of meat pies who comes up with a plan for disposing of Sweeney's victims. I loved watching her prance on stage with a tuba, and she has some funny moments. But she lacked the sense of eccentricity and great Cockney accent that makes Lansbury's Tony-winning turn so memorable. Kaye's character somehow seemed less of a character. I didn't find her quite as funny - or as mad - as I thought she should have been.

One of my favorite parts of the show is when Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett sing "A Little Priest," about some of the more unsavory ingredients in the meat pies. While I enjoyed Kaye and Hess, and I did laugh, their duet seemed to lack a little of the over-the-top hilarity that I remember from watching Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. Although the Colonial Theatre audience ate it up.

I didn't get to see Benjamin Magnuson, who played the role of Anthony in the Broadway revival, but his understudy, Edwin Cahill, is great as the young sailor who befriends Sweeney and falls in love with his daughter. Cahill's Anthony is brash and full of youthful enthusiasm and recklessness. Lauren Molina, reprising her role of Johanna from the revival, is wonderful and sings beautifully. She is so sweet as the judge's ward, a teenager frightened and repulsed at the prospect of marrying him.

Keith Buterbaugh as Judge Turpin and Benjamin Eakeley as the beadle wore more modern-looking clothes that almost made it seem as if they were in a different show. Turpin, with his silver mane and nicely tailored suit, is the respectable public servant whose urbane exterior hides something sinister. And the beadle, dressed in a black suit and white tie, comes off as a thug whose purpose in life is to do the judge's bidding, lawful or not.

When Turpin caresses Johanna, telling her that he plans to marry her in order to protect her, it's a truly creepy moment. In some ways, Turpin and the beadle are scarier than Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. (When I think about it, almost everyone in this show is a little bit mad.)

A lot of the unorthodox elements of John Doyle's production, including having the actors play instruments, worked well. In a way, the instrument seemed to fit the performer, from brassy Mrs. Lovett's tuba to Johanna's delicate, melancholy cello.

I'm more than a little squeamish, so I was a bit concerned that the show might be a little too gory for me. Luckily, I was fine. There's actually less gore in this version than in the original. And the sound and lighting effects when Sweeney does away with another victim are inspired. (Richard G. Jones designed the lighting and Dan Moses Schreier, the sound).

Doyle also is credited as the designer. I think the stripped-down set does cause the production to lose some of its connection to Victorian England. Things weren't quite as grim as I thought they should have been. But the vertical cupboard crammed with every type of knick-knack, photograph, and religious icon does evoke the cluttered, messy existance at Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop.

I wish I'd been able to see Cerveris and LuPone in the revival (and of course, I would love to have seen Angela Lansbury in the original!) Still, I think this production of "Sweeney Todd" is a great introduction to seeing Sondheim on stage. I definitely got a sense of the menace and the humor that make this such a great piece of musical theater. And I love the score even more after hearing it live.

Sadly, there were plenty of empty seats in the theater. While the orchestra looked fairly full, the mezzanine, where I was sitting, was half empty. And there were even fewer people in the balcony. The Red Sox weren't even playing until the evening, so really what was the excuse?

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