November, 2005

Potomac Stages Broadway 

Sweeney Todd

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
One intermission
Price range $36 - $101

You will either love or hate this revival of an acknowledged masterwork of the musical theater, a "musical thriller" based on a nineteenth-century legend which is a unique mixture of melodrama, macabre humor and psychological insight. If you have never seen the show before and have not listened to a recording of its magnificent score you will probably be so confused that you come away saying "What was that?" The director, in attempting to bring a new approach to an old standard, neglects the primary rule of musical theater - first, tell a good story clearly. Good story it has - clear telling it lacks. If, on the other hand, you know the show and are open to a new approach, there are many things to enjoy here including some fine performances and some grand singing. If you are looking for a recreation of the earlier classic, you will be sorely disappointed.

Storyline: The inmates in an asylum play out the story of a London barber who seeks vengeance for injustices done to him, his wife and their daughter. The revenge goes awry, driving him farther and farther from sanity as he teams up with the ditsy proprietress of a pie shop who sees in the remains of his victims fresh supplies for her meat pies.

​This revival is the work of John Doyle, an English director with a reputation for reduced versions of musicals utilizing the actors as musicians in order to avoid the expense of an orchestra. Here he uses that technique, reducing the cast of 27 to just ten with no orchestra in the pit at all. The actors-as-musicians approach is more than a gimmick, however, and certainly more than a mere economy. Once you hit on something like that, if you do it well, a certain artistry evolves all its own. You don't get the room-filling sound of Jonathan Tunick's original 25-piece orchestrations, but you do get a chamber-music sounding support, that in context, works very well. There are some distracting excesses - such as Patti LuPone pulling focus away from her colleagues at awkward times with shtick involving a triangle or a tuba - but there are some strikingly memorable effects such as Lauren Molina's cello work as Sweeney's daughter Johanna. The approach of making the show a performance by inmates in the asylum to which the character Tobias (Manoel Felciano) has been committed leaves some holes in the storytelling that Doyle simply can't patch up. Those who know the show will find it hard to believe that there is no barber's chair, no bodies sliding down chutes and no . . . well, lets not give it all away.

While Doyle makes a hash of the marvelously inventive and normally effective book by Hugh Wheeler, he does treat Sondheim's score with the respect it deserves. Yes, there are some cuts to accommodate the strange approach to the story, but the score remains fresh, thrilling and very well sung. Indeed, an occasional retention of a lyric or a flourish which doesn't quite work in this "asylum version" draws distracting attention to the reluctance to tamper with a work that has earned such a reputation that tampering is verboten. The new orchestrations by Sarah Travis are simultaneously inventive enough to accommodate the new approach and polished enough to retain the musical essence of the original. That was no mean trick.

The role of Sweeney Todd is one of the grand parts in American musical theater and here it is tackled with intensity and verve by Michael Cerveris. He is everything you would want in a Broadway Sweeney. His costar as the pie shop proprietress who praises her competition for harvesting the neighborhood pets ("popping pussies into pies – wot I calls enterprise") is less satisfying both because of the director's strange approach to the story which robs her of the surface savvy the character has had in other productions, and because she turns some of the tuba thumping and camp clumping into comedy routines at strange times during the story. Her singing, too, is a disappointment as her enunciation fails to accommodate some of Sondheim's fine lyrics. The supporting cast is quite good, especially Alexander Gemignani who comes up with new but always appropriate readings for his lines as the Beadle. His reading of the line which has become a catch phrase among devotees of Sondheim ("Ah sir, happy news indeed!") is totally different from earlier productions but quite superb, creating a new level of complexity to his character.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. From an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed and designed by John Doyle. Musical supervision and orchestrations by Sarah Travis. Design: Paul Huntly (wigs and hair) Richard G. Jones (lights) Dan Moses Schreier (sound). Cast: John Arbo, Michael Cerveris, Donna Lynn Champlin, Diana Dimarzio, Manoel Felciano, Alexander Gemignani, Mark Jacoby, Patti LuPone, Benjamin Magnuson, Lauren Molina.

Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street
New York