Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sweeney Todd"

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond

direction and staging by Rick Lombardo

musical direction by Janet Roma

Anthony … Brent Reno
Sweeney Todd … Todd Alan Johnson
Beggar Woman … Leigh Barrett
Mrs. Lovett … Nancy E. Carroll
Judge Turpin … Paul D. Farwell
The Beadle … Robert Zolli
Johanna … Liane Grasso
Tobias Ragg … Austin Lesch
Pirelli / Ensemble … Evan Harrington
Jonas Fogg / Ensemble … Bill Molnar

Ensemble: Brian Abascal; Elizabeth Asti; Ben Bartolone; Shana Carr; Whitney Cohen; Tatjana Cornij; Christine Hamel; Jennifer Hazel; Naomi Gurt Lind; Shaina Murphy; Everett O’Neil; Drew Polilng; Brian D. Wagner; Montroville C. Williams

Musicians: Janet Roma (keyboard); Stanley Silverman (violin); Linda Poland (clarinet); Connie Reisdorf (keyboard); Ed Krauss (bass); Scott G. Nason (percussion)

As I grow older, I can better understand Blanche DuBois in her repeated cries for magic: she is not a silly chatterbox who cannot look cold, hard Truth in the eye; she is a woman who has looked and now seeks to grow back the protective layer of Art and Beauty that Truth has stripped away from her. The same can be said about the Cruel or Sensational; in time one may finally cry “Enough!” and turn away from the lurid Ape and towards the ennobling Angel; what was considered gory fun in one’s youth now provokes disgust rather than horrified pleasure. If the slitting of human throats and converting the victims into pies appeals to you --- and in a musical, too --- you should enjoy New Repertory’s sterling production of Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD, now twenty-five years old but still possessing the power to either thrill or appall you. The New Rep production is one of the finest things you’ll see this year --- but I cannot say that I relished the show itself. “Enough.”

The tale of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and of Mrs. Lovett, his baking partner-in-crime, dates back to England in the 1840s, when George Dibdin Pitt concocted a popular melodrama based on a serial novel, “The String of Pearls, or The Barber of Fleet Street”. In 1962, Brian J. Burton expanded upon Mr. Pitt’s tale, stirring in songs of his own composition (in his notes, Mr. Burton mentions that the Pitt original was little more than a curtain raiser). In 1974, Christopher Bond revised the plot considerably; his version, in turn, became the basis for Mr. Sondheim’s musical, produced and directed by Harold Prince. I have tracked down the Messrs. Burton and Bond’s scripts (thus, these late scribbles); all three shows share the basics: Sweeney Todd murders his victims as they sit in a fiendishly-designed barber’s chair; he drops the bodies down to Mrs. Lovett’s basement, where that culinary fiend chops them up for pies to be sold for public consumption (all three versions have that famous hair-and-nail sequence). The Todd-Lovett partnership abruptly ends when the former murders the latter; the barber gets his comeuppance in the end.

The Pitt-Burton script is little more than a puppet show: Todd & Lovett are already in business at curtain’s rise; Sweeney is a simple madman who kills and robs his victims (“Boo! Hiss!” cries his audience); halfway through the play, he stabs Mrs. Lovett during a squabble (she is an important but minor character); Sweeney is brought to trial for his crimes but escapes by cutting his own throat. The ingénue Johanna, another minor character, is reunited with her lover Mark, one of Sweeney’s supposed victims (Mark has bought that coveted string of pearls for her).

Mr. Bond humanizes his Sweeney, giving him a motive for his murders: years ago, Judge Turpin, lusting after Sweeney’s wife, falsely condemned and exported the barber and raped Mrs. Todd; she is now presumed dead. The ingénue Johanna becomes Sweeney’s daughter, adopted by the Judge and raised as his ward. Sweeney, an escaped convict, returns to Fleet Street and encounters former neighbor Mrs. Lovett, who runs a down-and-out bakery shop (the times are hard; good meat is scarce). Mrs. Lovett has lovingly kept Sweeney’s silver-handled razor in hopes of his return --- the barber’s tool shall now become the barber’s weapon. Though he intends to murder only the Judge and his shady accomplice, the Beadle, Sweeney is forced to slit a blackmailer’s throat; the ever-practical Mrs. Lovett has fresh meat on her hands, and so…. Bodies begin to drop down to the basement, and Mrs. Lovett’s business is soon booming. Sweeney finally does wreak his vengeance; in doing so, however, he loses everything --- everything. The subplot involves Johanna falling in love with Anthony Hope, a kind-hearted seaman who has befriended Sweeney (he has no idea she is Sweeney’s daughter); Anthony helps Johanna to escape the Judge’s clutches lest history repeat itself. The Pitt-Burton script features two children, Sweeney’s apprentice Tobias and the urchin Jarvis; Mr. Bond combines the two into one (Tobias), who starts out as the blackmailer’s shill and ends up working for Mrs. Lovett; he is driven to madness upon realizing the true contents of those delicious pies, becoming an avenging angel himself.

If this synopsis bears a marked similarity to Hugh Wheeler’s libretto for Mr. Sondheim’s musical, that is because Mr. Wheeler has lifted Mr. Bond’s play lock, stock and razor right down to those smashed fingers protruding from Sweeney’s trunk, altering it just enough to ward off cries of plagiarism (should you ever read or see a production of Mr. Bond’s play, you may find yourself nodding in surprised agreement). Frankly, Mr. Bond does the better job; his play deserves to become better known in America.

Some may ask, “Why do you prefer the play and not the musical, since the two are really one?” The answer lies in the tone of each show and the way the violence is handled. Mr. Bond’s play doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a well-written thriller with all its horrors held in check (less is more, here); Mr. Bond delivers the goods (well seasoned with black humor) and doesn’t leave you squeamish. Mr. Sondheim’s version is grim, grim, grim --- and not much fun, either. There’s a cold, pretentious wind blowing down this Fleet Street; the audience is never allowed to forget it is watching Something Profound. Perhaps sensing that they could not improve on Mr. Bond’s achievement, the Messrs. Sondheim and Wheeler put in what Mr. Bond has left out. Thus we witness the marriage of razor and flesh, punctuated by PSYCHO-like shrieks to further twist the thumb screws. Those numerous slittings and writhings finally angered, not revolted, me --- “Enough!”

Others might say, “But Sondheim’s music has given Bond’s play new life! Who performs Sardou’s TOSCA or Wilde’s SALOME or Maeterlinck’s PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE anymore since they were eclipsed long ago by Puccini’s, Strauss’ and Debussy’s versions?” Well, for starters, Mr. Bond can stand very well on its own, thank you. For closers, Mr. Sondheim is not Puccini, Strauss or Debussy.

“But it’s SONDHEIM!” the diehards will cry.

“Precisely,” say I.

You mustn’t assume I don’t care for Mr. Sondheim --- it depends on what phase of Mr. Sondheim’s career you are talking about. SWEENEY TODD comes nears the end of his association with Mr. Prince; they revised the American musical, for better and for worse, with their groundbreaking COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, PACIFIC OVERTURES, SWEENEY TODD and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. I will always admire COMPANY and FOLLIES --- the former for its distinctly different sound that set it apart from the musicals of its day, the latter because it looks, Janus-like, at the theatre past (Kern, Porter, etc.) and the theatre future. (I saw the original Broadway production of FOLLIES shortly after it opened; it was the type of theatre experience that could mind-blow you, whatever your age.) I stopped listening to Mr. Sondheim after A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC; not only did I begin to not care for his evolving musical style, but his deification had begun: suddenly, traditional musicals weren’t good anymore (this was the 1970s, remember) --- they were false; they were gooey; they didn’t “say” anything --- all they did was (bah!) entertain. Only Sondheim mattered --- like, he was REAL, man! --- and those who performed his songs were no longer singers --- they were Interpreters; those who didn’t like or “get” Mr. Sondheim attended his shows, anyway --- who wanted to risk not being “with it”? I wouldn’t have minded Mr. Sondheim had he co-existed with the more traditional American musical --- there’s room for everybody in the theatre (or should be); instead, he all but choked the life out of it; what he didn’t finish, his imitators/successors finished for him. We now live in the age of batboys and anthems.

I will level four charges against Mr. Sondheim. First, he is a clever lyricist, as WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY continue to prove (for which he did NOT write the music) --- I say “clever”, not “brilliant” (there’s something obsessive and gadgety about his wordplay --- and sometimes his Interpreters cannot wrap their tongues around those complex lyrics); in time his words began to dominate, reducing his music to mere rattle. (Quick! Name a hit song from SWEENEY TODD. Some might say, “Johanna” or “Pretty Women” --- I cannot hum them even if you paid me. The one that does stick is that black duet, “A Little Priest”, where the lilt and TUNE of its waltz make me remember the lyrics, not the other way around.) Second, with the exception of the nostalgic FOLLIES (he CAN write tunes when he wants to!), much of Mr. Sondheim’s music continues to rattle, regardless of material or era (as does the music of his imitators/successors). Aside from the “Priest” waltz, the only SWEENEY number that sounds remotely Victorian is the Beadle’s “Parlor Song”, sung and played at the harmonium. Third, a number of Mr. Sondheim’s scores, SWEENEY TODD included, have been orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, which makes me wonder who really has created the “Sondheim sound”? If one artist sketches in an outline and another fills it in, who is responsible for the finished product? Who really deserves the applause?

The fourth charge is --- and I’m only going on his musicals that I have seen and/or heard --- is that Mr. Sondheim doesn’t blend very well with his collaborators (WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY aside). His music/lyrics are not in sync with the burlesque bawdiness of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM --- aside from the “Lovely” reprise, nothing matches the hilarity of the Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbert libretto; on the other hand, Mr. Sondheim transcends George Furth’s sitcom situations of COMPANY and James Goldman’s dreariness for FOLLIES --- here, truly, was a voice to be reckoned with. SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE has Mr. Sondheim in rattle mode with James Lapine’s non-plot inserted here and there, almost behind the master’s back (I’m amazed this show, all ideas and no characters, was awarded the Pulitzer). For SWEENEY TODD, the situation is reversed: Mr. Sondheim’s score does little to advance the plot (a tribute to Mr. Bond’s water-tightness); the music does grip and hold you from beginning to end; afterwards, much of it vanishes from memory. Mr. Sondheim, in short, has written a tuneless musical --- sadly, only one of many.

But the New Rep production is most excellent, despite my grumbles, and richly deserves the acclaim it has garnered and the awards it will reap. The original Harold Prince production was criticized by some as being too big, too Grand Opera-ish; the trend nowadays is to scale down SWEENEY TODD as a chamber musical, which the New Rep production does, and does well on its tiny stage (though in doing so it brings Mr. Sondheim’s pretensions all the closer to the audience). I pay director Rick Lombardo the same compliment that I paid to Spiro Veloudos for last year’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS: I have now seen a near-perfect staging of a work I don’t care for and need seek no further. Near-perfect, mind you: scene designer Peter Colao retards the production’s flow by having the ensemble repeatedly rearrange a movable set-piece like a giant rubix’s cube.

The proof of Mr. Lombardo’s excellent cast is (1) their singing deserves to be preserved in a recording studio (yes, they are that good) and (2) they could also do full justice to Mr. Bond’s play. Though not exactly star-studded, there isn’t a weak link in this large ensemble of all sizes, shapes and voices, and they all look so RIGHT, too: lost souls from the Industrial Era. (Frances Nelson McSherry and Christine Alger’s marvelous costumes have stepped out of Doré’s grimy London engravings. Even the pure Johanna comes off as less-than-dewy --- the filthy air has touched her privileged skin as well as those of her poorer brothers and sisters.

At year’s end, Todd Alan Johnson (Sweeney Todd) and Nancy E. Carroll (Mrs. Lovett) will be acclaimed as 2003’s Theatre Couple, and rightly so; their seamless playing is a macabre delight (Macbeth and ‘is Missus); they are endlessly supportive in their give and take and are watchable even when not the focus of a scene. Mr. Johnson is blessed with a virile, seemingly inexhaustible baritone (he pulls some alarming faces to produce those golden tones), and his burning eyes can light your way home, though he all but disappears in Act Two when Mrs. Lovett takes charge (Mr. Sondheim is far more interested in the baker than the barber). Ms. Carroll reads “small”, “frail”, “sparrow-like”; I have not seen her perform until now but sense she could easily move me to tears in poignant dramas. Here, the sparrow has talons, not only to stay afloat in business but to hold onto the barber she worships. Judging by photos of the original Broadway production, Angela Lansbury must have played her as a Cockney cartoon; Ms. Carroll is far subtler but no less formidable (no trademark wig with those two knobs of hair for her). Happily, she doesn’t cloy with the cutesy ditty “By the Sea” and supplies the necessary warmth for the unnecessary “Not While I’m Around”, which comes out of left field (the ogress suddenly has a beating heart!).

Leigh Barrett is in predictably lovely voice as the crazed Beggar Woman despite having to sing some rather filthy lyrics (Mr. Bond’s character is neither mad nor vulgar) and is brought back time and again until even a child will conclude she is there for a reason (which she is) --- I missed Ms. Barrett’s acclaimed Fosca in SpeakEasy’s production of Mr. Sondheim’s PASSION; now I’m sorry I did. Austin Lesch brings a touching sweetness to the simple, trusting, maddened Tobias. Last autumn, Mr. Lesch appeared in SpeakEasy’s production of BAT BOY; after that trip to the Dark Side, Mr. Sondheim’s vision of hell must have been as easy as, well, pie.

How ironic, that the Vokes Theatre’s totally different but equally excellent production of TINTYPES was playing nearby; it will have closed by the time you read this. Had you attended, you would not have cried, “Enough!” but, rather, “More, more!”

"Sweeney Todd" (23 April-25 May)
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS, MA
1 (617) 332-1646

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