Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sweeney Todd Unplugged 

John Doyle’s stripped down production of "Sweeney Todd" has arrived in NYC from London (recast with local talent, of course). This show is known for being prodigiously expensive and difficult to mount due to the requirements for a multilevel set complete with a barber’s chair, a chute for bodies to slide down into the basement, and a prop razor that can be used to slash throats in a bloody and convincing manner. Oh, and a nearly thirty-piece orchestra.

While other directors have done away with the orchestral requirements (as Circle in the Square did in their strong revival starring Bob Gunton, Beth Fowler and a very moving Eddie Korbich as Toby), Doyle’s conceit is to do away with everything except the actors, some chairs and a coffin on sawhorses. The actors double as musicians, which gives ten instruments for the composer to set the score on, although only eight are likely to be used at any one time (since at least two actors are usually occupied acting at any one time). No one leaves the stage and the actors move the set pieces, such as they are.

This removal of distractions drives the actors towards a naturalism that I’d wager has before been seen in a production of this work. "Sweeney" is typically described as “Grand Guignol” and the current version running at the O’Neill Theatre is anything but. Michael Cerveris, surely the strongest interpreter of Sondheim since Patinkin, is truly chilling through the first half of the show. His Sweeney is so….angry. And psychotic.

As any theatre textbook will tell you, Western theatrical tradition changed post-Freud and post-Ibsen. Psychological reality replaced melodrama and symbolism. Yet Sweeney Todd has always been a throwback. An understandable temptation given that our anti-hero spends the play slaughtering customers and letting his girlfriend cook them into meat pies. Who wants naturalism with that subject matter?

But Cerveris doesn’t go to the usual places. This is typified by his rendition of “Epiphany” with a raging repetition of the line “They all deserve to die” that is truly bloodcurdling and clearly conveys that his Sweeney is completely unhinged. Cerveris projects his anger so forcefully that - for the first time ever during a production of this show - I was truly afraid of the man on the stage.

This is a dangerous choice. Sweeney is an antihero to be sure, but we need to find some way to like him, to empathize with how he has been wronged. The answer to this problem is neatly solved by Cerveris’ connection to co-star Patti LuPone.

LuPone has never been a favorite of mine. And the thought of seeing a woman famous for poor diction mumble Sondheim had me quaking in my boots before the show. But LuPone delivers the goods in a way that I could never have imagined. It is an improbable and real victory. Despite the fact she flies through eighteen different accents and misses as many notes during the show, LuPone is still a revelation.

Angela Lansbury’s Lovett was a witty, clever and comparatively chaste for a murderess. This Mrs. Lovett is a slut truebred: ragged fishnet stockings, coal-ringed eyes, and a walk that says “for sale” from ten blocks away.

And it is Mrs. Lovett’s deep desire to win Benjamin Barker, the man Sweeney was before his deportation and whom she could never get, that brings out a form of humanity in Sweeney that enables us to connect. When Cerveris and LuPone sing “A Little Priest” it is the most nuanced and improbably sexy rendition of the number I’ve ever seen (for reference, I’ve seen three prior productions). In this number, Mrs. Lovett regrounds Sweeney with sex, humor and a vibrantly shared misanthropy and allows the audience to laugh with Sweeney and find a man inside the monster.

The production also manages to work without any of the traditional staging. That said I fear that the lack of staging (it’s almost a concert version in places) leaves some real gaps for those who don’t know the show extremely well.

There are other nits to pick. The direction saunters off into unnecessary symbolism (how many coffin symbols do we need?); the actor playing Anthony sings beautifully but reads as gay; and bad seats render parts of the show invisible (from house right we couldn’t see Anthony at all during “Johanna”(!).

Nits duly picked.

Overall it’s hard to shake the effects of this minimalist production. A deeply scary Sweeney with no bloody razors is no mean feat.

I may have to go again!
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