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Sweeney Todd (2008) – Theatre Review

Sweeney Todd Tour poster

National Tour
Seen in Atlanta, Georgia, May 28, 2008

Lyrics & Music by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by John Doyle
Starring Judy Kaye, David Hess, Keith Buterbaugh, Benjamin Magnuson, Lauren Molina

So after seeing the John Doyle production in New York and finding it the singular best theatre experience I’ve had in years, I was happy as hell to hear it was going out on tour. Because there are many people who need to see this–and if you haven’t, then you’re one of them. I won’t go into too much about the show itself or even this interpretation–because it’s the same show I saw, with the same set, just on tour with a slightly different cast–and you can read my review of that here. But part of what you have to understand is that there’s no orchestra for this production–the cast is also the orchestra. Also, it’s interesting to note that–if I’m remembering correctly–Edmund Bagnell as Tobias is the only cast member to not have come from standby/understudy status on the Broadway revival, or been imported from Doyle’s other recent revival triumph, Company.

Also of interest is that now the audience is coming to the show (and the house seemed to be pretty well packed, by the way) having seen Tim Burton’s interesting but flawed film version of the show. I’m sure some of them were a bit confused–“Framing story? There’s a framing story?” and “Chorus? There’s a chorus?”–but I’m sure it was a growth experience for them.

Like with most shows where the main character shares the name of the show, it’s no surprise that you kinda need to have a strong main character. So let’s get the bad news out of the way first. David Hess is not that. He seems like he could be, but he’s got a curious interpretation of the part. For those familiar with the different versions of the show, you had the wonderous bombast of Len Cariou and George Hearn then the much more withdrawn and seething Michael Cerveris for the revival. There’s nothing wrong with trying to aim for Hearn territory. And I’m not faulting Hess because he’s not Cerveris, because that would be silly. My first problem is that he’s trying for bombast in a show with only nine other people. It’s not the same show that Hearn exploded brilliantly through and Hearn’s Todd wouldn’t fit in here. Hess’ Todd plays like he’s in the wrong version of the show.

The other problem is that he makes for a fine murderous anti-hero, but just not one that anyone would ever go anywhere near. He plays Todd like the character is either drunk or suffering from a high fever. He staggers about the stage and basically acts like a loonbag. Why would anyone want to go near this guy, especially if he had a razor in his hand? Why does he move around so much? Todd is calculating. Todd is crafty. Todd should not act like a guy who really needs to switch to decaf. Because Hess can’t make a believable Todd, there’s no real menace in the character. “Epiphany,” wherein Todd invites us to step up and get killed…just doesn’t work. Granted, when he’s given something specific to do, blocking-wise, like cradling that still creepy white child’s coffin–he can center himself enough to draw some good moments. But there are just not enough of those.

When one half of an on stage couple falls short, the other must step up–and herein lies the best news of the show. Judy Kaye. She is amazing and a revelation. Kaye, who took over the role of Lovett in the Broadway revival after Patti LuPone left the show, brings a tremendous sense of reality to the character of Mrs. Lovett. She seems like somebody’s mom that you knew when you were a teenager. Down to earth, practical–and yes, murderous and opportunistic–but she feels like somebody you could know in real life. Her laugh lines work simply because she is so earnestly trying to get by and also get by with Todd. She seems so real when she’s being maternal with Tobias. Their “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” is one of the highpoints of the show. Even if the rest of the cast were lacking, Kaye would be worth the full price of admission.

Luckily, though, the cast isn’t lacking. Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson are reprising their roles from the Broadway revival, and they bring the same respective giddy lunacy and young earnestness that they were previously. Also returning is Diana DiMarzio, who takes the Beggar Woman’s role and makes it completely and quietly devastating. Also excellent is Benjamin Eakeley, bringing the perfect smug smarm to The Beadle. If there’s a weak spot besides Todd it’s Keith Buterbaugh’s Judge. This is not a slight against Buterbaugh–having seen him in Company I know he’s good. However, I couldn’t buy this nice looking gentleman as the lecherous and borderline incestuous villain of the piece. Even when trying to be creepy with Johanna, it feels a bit odd and forced. This may because he looks a lot like he did in Company and perhaps it’s just my inability to separate him from the roles but that’s just what happened in my head.

If you love theatre, then you owe it to yourself to catch Sweeney Todd on tour. Let’s just hope there’s a DVD coming of the Broadway revival so everybody can check it out. Probably my favorite comment I heard during the evening was a woman getting up after the curtain call and remarking to her friend, “Well, that was better than the movie.” You’re damn right.