Mar 9, 2017

TBT: 'Sweeney' Stripped Naked

Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Manoel Felciano, and Donna Lynne Champlin in "Sweeney Todd" (photo by Paul Kolnik)

It's hardly controversial that Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece (and, as I got him to reveal to me, possibly his most personal show). Not that it's production-proof, but I don't think I've ever seen a bad staging, come to think of it, or a pair of leads that were like any other pair: From Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel to Orville Mendoza and Deb Nishimura, from Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski to the stars of the smashing new New York revival, Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy. (The film is a whole nother ball of wax.) In honor of the show's current revival, whose reviews except for Ben Brantley's have largely been ecstatic (a perfect argument for the value of a site like StageGrade or Show-Score), I look back on my review of the last big New York revival. Attend the tale.

Nov. 4, 2005

As sharp and glistening as a straight-edge razor, director John Doyle's stripped-down concert/theater rendition of Sweeney Todd gives the kind of buzz you don't expect, and certainly almost never get, from a Broadway show. It is the distinct hum of musical and theatrical intelligence; it is the glow of sheer brilliance as an entertainment value in itself.

There has surely never been a grimmer or bloodier musical written for the Broadway stage than this 1979 masterpiece from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler. And Doyle's abstract, poor-theater staging only italicizes the show's unforgiving gallows humor. But somehow the artistry of this Sweeney lifts the spirits.

Actually, I think I can guess how: By having the 10-member cast play the score while they act and sing the show, Doyle's production makes the show's craftsmanship lovingly, nakedly transparent (the deft new orchestrations are by Sarah Travis). What this production lacks in definitive acting turns, vocal virtuosity, and realistic staging--and it does have some deficits in all these departments--it gains in intimacy and intention.

There's a matter-of-fact seamlessness to the concept that saves it from gimmickry. When Judge Turpin (Marc Jacoby) sits to converse with the Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) about his disturbing plans for Johanna (Lauren Molina), both are holding trumpets, at the ready for the next number. Are they in character or out? When Mrs. Lovett (Patti LuPone) emerges with a tuba, sassily tooting some bass notes and waggling her derriere in time, are we watching LuPone or Lovett? Actress, character, musician, or all of the above? These three identities bleed together throughout the cast, and the result brings both the score and the show to tactile, surprising life--or at least to the kind of life we've never seen before.

Certainly, we do miss the sweep of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations--the crushing timpani and high Bernard Herrmann strings that gave the show's penny-dreadful contours near-Wagnerian fury. And the symbolic staging of the show's murders is pretty wan indeed: tipped buckets of red paint, red lights, that blood-curdling factory whistle, all played in front of a tall backdrop of wooden slats and junk-shop shelves. (Don't ask about the baby coffin.)

And it must be noted that in the title role, Michael Cerveris is slightly off the mark. Looking like a mod Nosferatu in his thin black tie, leather jacket, and trademark shorn pate, Cerveris is appropriately chilling and pathetic, and he does bring a few unique assets to the role. Sweeney is supposed to have been so altered by 15 years of wrongful imprisonment that no one in his old neighborhood quite recognizes him on his return; I've never exactly bought that before, but Cerveris powerfully embodies that alienation. And hey, a bald barber--that's pretty unsettling by itself.

But Cerveris is too much of a bloodless vampire--and he's probably too young--to convey the damaged virility of a Sweeney like Len Cariou, who originated the role. There's a human touch missing from this revenge-addled monster.

Not so LuPone's tarty, lovable Mrs. Lovett. In a black Louise Brooks wig and seedy baby-doll dress and stockings, LuPone relaxes into this witchily sympathetic role with supreme confidence. She doesn't push or prod a single moment, nor does she oversell either Mrs. Lovett's craven, amoral practicality or her sweeter, dafter romantic side. Whether she's cleaning the tools of her dismembering trade or draining spit from her tuba, LuPone gives us a wonderfully undespairing anti-heroine.

Her evident joy brings out the best in Cerveris, in the delicious "A Little Priest," surely the funniest song ever linking cannibalism to capitalism. Consider the tools of the trade here: Mimed without props and sung without a single pop wail, "A Little Priest" brings down the house on the strength of its lyrics, delivered with lip-smacking relish by the leads. Forget the sight of LuPone playing the tuba for a second: How often do we see sheer wit stop the show on Broadway?

Jacoby captures the bourgeois banality of Judge Turpin's villainy, while Gemignani plays the Beadle so drily I thought he'd snap; he gets more laughs from this absurd flunky, and in more unexpected places, than would seem possible. So do Molina and Benjamin Magnuson, as the show's slightly befuddled young lovers, Anthony and Johanna; we know these two make a good match because they share a love of playing the cello and warbling ardent operetta. Donna Lynne Champlin plays the grandstanding Pirelli as a weird wind-up doll. Manoel Felciano's Tobias is another performance in which the sweetness of the playing (the violin, in the case) blurs nicely with the singing and acting. And I've never seen Beggar Woman as winningly pitiful as Diana DiMarzio's shuffling, clarinet-playing specimen.

Soon enough we don't notice the things we might have missed at first, not only because of the cast's conviction but because, as a show like Shockheaded Peter proved, a judicious use of light and shadow, and a properly placed accordion, can be infinitely creepier than any literal bloodbath or screeching string section.

I'm no box-office prophet; I have no idea whether this Sweeney will be a hit beyond the Sondheim cult. It certainly deserves to catch on with the sort of New Yorkers who feel too cool to go to Broadway shows. But the tourists and tired businessmen? They may not get the entertainment they're looking for here, but what they do get--essentially, the best bleak, funny Gothic chamber musical ever--they're never going to forget.

Sweeney Todd
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by John Doyle
Eugene O'Neill Theatre

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