Theatre folks know Sweeney Todd well. The really twisted ones among us know it well and enjoy the hell out of it, for many reasons: the gallows humor and the straight-up gallows; Sondheim being 110% Sondheim; and, well, we just dig things with “demon” in the title. Some of us are so weird we think about rock versions of the musical. And we all are quite familiar with the Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury version, played big with a tremendous body count, bright whites to get a bit of red on, and so forth. Some of us have been lucky enough to be in a production of the show (myself included).
John Doyle, however, has taken the production in an entirely different direction. It’s one thing to say you’re reviving Todd. It’s another to say you’re doing it completely stripped down to the point where the company is ten people. But we all sit up and pay attention when you say something as daft as, “Well, he’s stripped the whole damn orchestra out of it as well–the ten people on stage are both actors and orchestra.” I’m sorry…what was that?
Whereas Cariou was Todd in broad, murderous strokes, Michael Cerveris brings us a Todd who is quiet, thoughtful, and downright tormented. When he does lash out (the ten percent left over from above), you get a real sense of fear for the people on stage with him. Every time he smiles, your flesh wants to crawl right off your body and hail a cab outside. It’s a performance that, sadly, the soundtrack doesn’t do justice to. You have to watch the man’s face to appreciate his work, which is not a knock against his voice, mind you, it’s just whereas with Cariou I can listen to that soundtrack and do just fine, here you need the full performance. You need to watch the gears turning.
Patti LuPone makes for a startling Mrs. Lovett, and not just because she plays the tuba. No, I’m serious. Her “Worst Pies in London” seems almost calm against the manic Sondheim rush that the lyrics bring, which leaves you completely unprepared for the ghastly fun she and Cerveris bring to “A Little Priest.” She doesn’t seem to mind playing about in the gutter, so she’s delightful. In, you know, a freaky horrible kind of way. Indeed, if you pay attention towards the end of the show, one of the most moving emotional bits is hers, delivered “off camera.” She and Cerveris bring more physical attraction with each other to their roles than I have seen previously done, which only heightens the intensity of the things that come later.
I say “off camera” above because there’s the obvious focus of the scene playing out in front of you, but you could watch the show three times and still not catch everything that’s going on. This is because, with a rare exception in the second act, no one ever leaves the stage. In fact, as Cosette pointed out, it appears apart from a door in the back of the set, there isn’t a way to leave the stage. No exit to the wings at all. As a result, they’re “on” even when they’re serving as the orchestra. The players react to one another, to what’s going onstage, and so forth. Judge Turpin can even be spotted at one instance reading from his Bible in the background. They almost seem to be stuck in the cycle of the play, made evident by a frame to the story that makes it seem like a company of Marat/Sade just suddenly decided to do Todd in repertoire. As a result, the entire play feels claustrophobic without restricting the story and more and more likely to bubble over with full-on dementia.
Mark Jacoby’s Turpin is a truly disturbing individual, even though on the surface he seems the most normal and well-adjusted of the cast–isn’t that always the way? The “Deliver Me” bit, which doesn’t always make it into productions seeing as how it’s a prayer to God to assist with a borderline incestuous infatuation, is a testament to the character’s depravity. Amazingly, his lustful ways are the least creepy portion of the show–by design, of course.
Benjamin Magnuson’s Anthony is just flat amazing. His character is the most sane of the bunch, though you run around with loonies and you’re apt to get some on you. His “Johanna” is just spot-on perfect, and his desire to just get out of the story he’s in and hopefully take the woman of his dreams with him–well, what guy hasn’t wanted to rescue a damsel in distress from her crazy family?
Lauren Molina’s Johanna is good in the same way that Helena Bonham Carter‘s Ophelia in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet was good. In other words, the best I’ve ever seen. Every production I’ve ever been aware of has Johanna and Anthony as the pair of star-crossed normies in an ocean of loonbags. Here, Johanna starts off sweet, seems to be a little emphatic and hormonal, and then reveals herself as completely broken by her experiences under Turpin’s control. While “off camera,” Johanna can be seen playing her instrument almost sobbing out of control as her life is being decided for her “in camera.” It’s. Utterly. Heartrending.
Donna Lynne Champlin plays a dual role as what passes for the lead “chorus” person (since she seems to be sternly handling Toby in the background as some form of asylum doctor or something–and handing out coats) and the very hilarious Pirelli. It’s so very odd to see her going from stone-faced to animated for Pirelli because you have to remind yourself it’s the same person in both “roles.” And how in the hell is it that an accordion can be the creepiest instrument in the group? What’s that all about? Oh, and it took us a minute but we caught her nametag. A very nice touch.
Diana DiMarzio as the Beggar Woman, who in other versions has been played without really using any of her story, here gets an incredibly touching moment towards the end, which only makes the inevitable worse. The inevitable, of course, becomes more inevitable as the icon of death (the aforementioned bloodied white coat) gets laid down earlier and more dismissively each time by Champlin. DiMarzio gets a role that has been made whole, which is refreshing in this interp.
Manoel Felciano’s Tobias is fascinating to watch as he plays the character with a definite mental condition (Tourette’s? because of the intense blinking, perhaps?) that’s easy to laugh at during his portions of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “God That’s Good,” and then easy to find endearing during “Not While I’m Around.” And then easy to freak out with when, you know, shit really starts to get weird.
Alexander Gemignani is like the epitome of Beadles. By that I mean: take every performance of the Beadle you’ve ever seen, make it even more imperious and powerful, and you’ve got him down. The use of his flashlight as lighting in certain sequences is ingenious, so is his work on the keys, especially if, as a quote in the program implies, he’s conducting everything from upstage (since the conductor monitors, from what we could tell, were unused).
John Arbo has the smallest on-stage role as Fogg, so I can’t say too much about his acting skills (which were fine), but I can say he delivers on the bass. And, again, since nobody leaves the stage and everybody’s always “on,” he holds his own.
I’m glad, honestly, that the set is primarily a big black coffin, some chairs, and a ladder. There’s the shelving in the back above the keyboard, with strategic lighting, but for the most part, if there was any more symbolism happening on stage, my head would have caved in. The murders (all but one) are highly symbolic and the players don’t simply exit the stage down a chute and get made into pies. That would be too easy. Instead, the line “Of all the demons of hell sent to torment me” has never had such weight before, when delivered looking into the staring eyes of the accusing dead. Because the show is more intimate than I’ve ever seen it, it nails the both the comedy and the tragedy of what we’re seeing. If you can leave the theatre without your head ringing, I’ll be amazed.
I’d like to also point out that the show gets huge points for keeping the second best stage direction in the history of theatre for the close of the show (the best of which is still, of course, “Exit, pursued by a bear”).
When this show closes, which sadly, it will one day, I urge in the strongest possible terms for a performance of the original cast to be released on DVD. Regional theatres around the country are bankrupting themselves with “the Hollywood mentality” of “Throw enough money at it and it might get impressive enough for people to show up.” As a result, bigass musicals aren’t making any money because the companies have set themselves no limits. They’re too busy trying to make sets on automatic turntables work, or huge sets hidden behind scrim, or some other such gee-whiz nonsense. Goddammit, if we want that we’ll watch the latest Tinseltown piece of shit they’ve thrown at us. We go to the theatre because it gives us a connection that nothing else can–and it doesn’t take ILM-level effects to make that happen. Everyone involved in theatre should see this production. It is a wake-up call to get back to what makes theatre successful: a singular creative vision and the actors and crew to bring it to life.