The newest installment from Broadway Across America makes the trip to the theater worth it for a razor-edged updated version of Stephen Sondheim’s, Sweeney Todd. Tony-award winning for its unique direction, in which the actors serve as the orchestra, this musical is unconventional with tunes not easily forgotten.
Sweeney Todd is a dark tale set in the 1800’s were a Fleet Street barber returns to London to seek revenge after being tried and sent to jail for 15 years. Todd is befriended and encouraged to fulfill his vendetta by the hilarious, and equally twisted, pie-baker of the worst pies in London, Mrs. Lovett.
The cast awes audiences with dexterity in both vocal and instrumental talent, with many being able to play multiple instruments. However, if looking for a production where the money spent is apparent on the sets, head next door to Wicked. Although not flashy, Sweeney Todd will not disappoint with its appearance.
The show opens with panes creating an illusion of being inside a bleary wooden box. A feeling of eeriness is emphasized with lighting leaking slowly through its cracks. Like in the opening scene, a little goes a long way. During the show only 9 chairs, a wall of props and a black coffin are pushed to the limits of what they represent to illustrate the tale being told. This agility is what impresses one most as the ten actors single-handedly carry every aspect of the production together.
Because of the minimalist set, the few props go a long way. With every death, the stage is bathed in red light; buckets of blood are slowly poured out and the newly deceased adorns a lab coat smattered with even more blood. It is a creepy but powerful effect.
Tony award winner, Judy Kaye portrays Mrs. Lovett with raucousness to the role that will delight newcomers and make her fans ecstatic. Although not quite as endearingly maternal as Patti LuPone, who played Mrs. Lovett before her, Kaye compliments Sweeney’s blind vengefulness with her own idiosyncrasies. Sweeney Todd however, played by David Hess but understudied by David Garry, falls somewhat flat.
Sweeney’s is a role of deep-set anger where a level of empathy must be employed, both of which seemed difficult for the actors to acquire. Other character highlights include the talented singer Johanna, played by cellist Lauren Molina, and the exceedingly quirky Tobias, violinist Edmund Bagnell.
A downfall of the show is the difficulty in understanding what characters say at times. Sondheim’s music is beautiful to listen to, but can confuse newcomers to the plot. Modern theaters and full houses may make it harder for the sounds to be clear as well. Unlike at the original presentation in New York’s Eugene O’Neill theater, which debuted in ’79 and was only half-full. The effort in trying to use lighting, props and actors as in the original adaptation, though, make the play satisfactory even with the minor setbacks.
Sweeney Todd will be touring through the nation until early 2008. At BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com, tour dates and locations can be viewed. If the musical does not come to a city near you going to the movies is the next best thing. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are set to star in the film adaptation of the musical, in theaters December 21.
Sweeney Todd with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler; directed and designed by John Doyle; lighting by Richard G. Jones.