As far as I’m concerned, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a great American opera, despite being written in the popular idiom. (It’s reported that Sondheim is driven crazy by that contention, but then artists don’t always fully appreciate the art they create.) The complexity of the score is well beyond your average musical. The thematic use of music to tell the story, the rich melodic structure, and the complexity of the ensembles makes it an incredibly sophisticated work of art.
As such, the current national touring production does not do Sondheim’s masterpiece much justice. The work’s greatness is totally obscured by this production’s gimmicky concept and staging.
The show, like the current Tim Burton film, is based on a nineteenth-century melodrama about a mad barber seeking revenge for injustices perpetrated against he and his family years before, by slitting the throats of the perpetrators. He is in cahoots with Mrs. Lovett, who bakes his victims into unsavory meat pies. Hugh Wheeler’s book attempts to take the show to a higher metaphoric level of class struggle, but it works best as a Grand Guignol horror story.
The touring production is basically a chamber version of the show, where ten actors not only perform all the roles and act as the chorus, but also play all the instruments. As a result, the accompaniment is incredibly thin, and so is the vocal ensemble, which doesn’t even come close to delivering Sondheim’s full-throated choruses the way they are meant to be sung. And their greatest sin is to make the incredibly witty and incisive lyrics all but incomprehensible.
Directed and designed by John Doyle, this production won the Tony Award in 2006 for Best Revival and was acclaimed in New York. But to my mind, its stylized theatricality robs the story of both its horror and its humanity. Since the entire cast remains onstage for the entire show, the effect of Sweeney’s razor has little consequence. And the fact that cast members are playing instruments—even in the midst of their scenes—becomes distracting, limiting any kind of human interaction. When Mrs. Lovett comes onstage blowing two notes on a tuba, it just trivializes the whole proceedings.
Judy Kaye’s Mrs. Lovett is the bright light of the production, however—which is as it should be, because that part is written to steal the show. Kaye plays the outrageous character with enough subtlety to be both funny and menacing, and her rendition of “A Little Priest” is the highlight of the show.
Despite his he-man swagger, David Hess’s Sweeney is about a size too small for the role. He does not dominate the stage, vocally or dramatically, as the mythic character should. And in the most extreme moments, he becomes so melodramatic that he loses all his humanity, depriving the story of an added level of emotional involvement and, indeed, tragedy.
As Johanna, Sweeney’s long lost daughter, Lauren Molina sings with an unpleasantly shrill soprano and plays the role so broadly that she loses all sense of being the sympathetic ingénue. Benjamin Magnuson makes a strong stab at being the romantic hero that tries to rescue her, but the production defeats him and it is impossible to care about their fates, once again robbing the show of its heart.
By contrast, the Tim Burton version currently in theaters has all the passion, danger, and pathos that’s missing from this production. In fact, the best local version of Sweeney Todd I've seen was at Bloomington Civic Theatre, where director John Command treated the story with both the grandeur and the humanity that it deserves. This version, despite its New York pedigree, feels done up on the cheap.
Sweeney Todd runs through February 10 at the State Theatre.