This 'Sweeney Todd' cuts to the heart
John Doyle's starkly pared-down reimagining of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which opened last night at the Colonial, reveals Stephen Sondheim's dark brilliance in all its cold-blooded glory. It is marvelous and terrible to behold.
Marvelous, because having the cast of just 10 actors double as their own accompanying musicians lets us hear the wonderfully consonant dissonances of Sondheim's score more clearly than ever; stripping the music bare reveals its coolly coherent structure and seemingly effortless flow. And terrible, because without the technical dazzle of a big Broadway musical to distract us, the grim horror of Sweeney's story is laid bare, too.
It feels truer to the spirit of the piece, honestly, to do it this way, with boldly simple props and lighting on a nearly bare wooden stage, rather than as it appeared on Broadway in 1979, with a vast Victorian-factory set full of creepily ingenious contraptions. That was a stunning spectacle; this is a nightmare in a box. If we find it terrifying to be in that box, we also know that's exactly how we're supposed to feel.
What separates Sondheim's respectful admirers from his rabid devotees is the willingness to embrace his bleak, despairing vision of humanity, and that willingness has never been tested more strenuously than by "Sweeney Todd." This is, after all, a musical about a man who wreaks vengeance by butchering people with a razor and having his landlady bake them into pies. More than that, it's a musical that ends by declaring that Sweeney Todd is everywhere, that any of us, tormented enough by the powerful villains who control society, would turn as remorselessly murderous as he.
My own pessimism doesn't extend quite that far. So for all my admiration of "Sweeney Todd," which is considerable, its cruelty casts a chill over my enthusiasm. That said, Doyle's vision of the piece - closer to opera than to musical theater - makes it a clearer, sharper, and more subtly disturbing experience than before. He cuts with a scalpel, not an ax.
This first national tour also includes several actors from the New York production, along with veterans of other Sondheim shows, and their mastery of its instrumental and vocal demands helps the streamlined staging move with smooth precision. David Hess gives Sweeney Todd a truly frightening grin - cross Kelsey Grammer with Frankenstein's monster, and you've got the idea. His voice sounded a bit constrained in the high notes last night, but otherwise his air of barely contained destructive fury served to underscore the demon barber's frightening hunger for vengeance.
Judy Kaye, meanwhile, is nastily hilarious as the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett. In her Betty Crocker flip and Weimar fishnets, she's smilingly pragmatic, gleefully amoral, and amusing right up until she's terrifying. Kaye's rich voice and impeccable comedic skills do add a welcome warmth to some of her best moments: "A Little Priest," that classic marriage of wit and gore that closes the first act, and anything involving a tuba. The cellos wielded by the young lovers may seem like more likely instruments for this score, but, oh, that tuba. It's almost enough to make you burst into a healthy, unironic grin - "Todd" forbid.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.