By: Gordin & Christiano
A chilling spell is being cast by John Doyle with his daringly imaginative revival of Stephen Sondheim’s twisted thriller Sweeney Todd. Mr. Doyle has not only directed, but designed the radical new production. His stark staging of the classic horror opera about a “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” whose victims are ground into meat pies has intensified the narrative turning the evening into a thrilling musical adventure.
John Doyle cuts the cast to ten (down from the original 27) and does away with the orchestra. The ensemble plays musical instruments instead and are now inmates in an insane asylum acting out the story of Sweeney Todd for the other inmates. The effect is an eerily personal journey where the audience is drawn into the unfolding events from the very first moment.
Doyle’s innovative approach dispenses with set changes while placing the action in a black and white arena that suggests a dreary psychiatric ward. The story begins with a terrified young man in a straitjacket surrounded by people in white robes. As he sings the musical’s opening words “Attend the tale of Sweeny Todd,” we are summoned into his disturbing world. There is no turning back. The effect was as if someone had snapped a whip and commanded our attention.
Sweeney Todd is a dark tale of corruption and murder based on the 19th century legend of a vengeful London barber, who is driven to a life of crime when a depraved judge sends him to jail claiming his wife and child in the process. Doyle’s Todd is told in a concentrated form that does away with elaborate scenery and costumes, relying instead upon symbolism. Everything is suggestive. Each death is signified with a red lighting effect that consumes the stage, and crimson red blood is poured from one bucket to another. The major set piece is a black coffin that is elaborately moved about signifying the changing events.
Michael Cerveris is extraordinary in the leading role. He brings sensuality as well as a menacing presence to the gruesome hero with his shiny bald head and a contemptuous smirk. When he sings his voice is full of anger and torment. He gives a beautifully realized performance that is unforgettable delivering two guitar solos in the process.
Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett is wonderful and her tuba playing is a sight to behold. She sashays about the stage in a tight black mini skirt and torn fishnet stockings delivering a crude physical performance that is a delight.
Manoel Felciano as Tobias is a standout as well. He possesses a beautiful singing voice that lingers in your mind along with his memorable characterization. Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson as the anguished lovers, Johanna and Anthony, are oddly terrific. Alexander Gemignani as the expressionless Beadle is right on.
The ensemble of actors doubling as the orchestra is marvelous. Their precision and intricacy are remarkable, like the workings of a finely crafted Swiss clock. There is more beneath the polished surface than meets the eye.
Sara Travis’ re-orchestrations have possibly made the music stronger. She has culled a variety of sounds from the instruments that have rendered Sondheim’s sumptuous score even more moving. Shadings may have been lost, but the overall effect is a focus that further engages your imagination while drawing you into the sinister life of the characters.
The first rate lighting by Richard G. Jones enhances the evening immeasurably, but John Doyle’s hauntingly original Sweeny Todd adds up to much more then the sum of its parts. There is an accumulation here that is breathtaking.
Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street on November 3, 2005. 212-239-6200 or http://www.telecharge.com.
Barry Gordin and Patrick Christiano are theatre critics. Barry Gordin is an internationally renowned photographer. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in Dan’s Papers November 10, 2005, reprinted with permission from the authors.