`Sweeney Todd' one killer production

Gutsy choice kicks off Sondheim celebration

Theater Review

May 14, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Sweeney Todd is a musical that's supposed to give you the creeps. And, even if you've seen it before - even if you know every line - the Kennedy Center's production will make you shudder. Musically soaring and emotionally chilling, it marks a towering start to the four-month Sondheim Celebration.

Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler based this 1979 musical on the legendary tale of a Victorian barber who slit the throats of his customers, who were then baked into meat pies. Maniacal Todd and his daffy accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, the cook, are among the most peculiar couples in musical theater, and ferocious Brian Stokes Mitchell and perky Christine Baranski epitomize their contrasting natures. They are tragedy and comedy wrapped up in one inspired duo.

Granted, cannibalism isn't the most palatable idea for a musical. But unconventionality is a Sondheim trademark, and Sweeney Todd is one of his masterpieces. Though director Christopher Ashley breaks little new ground here, his powerful revival reinforces that masterpiece status.

Giving full sway to the melodramatic, Grand Guignol elements, Ashley serves up the musical with plenty of stage blood. Nor does he stint on the social underpinnings of Wheeler's libretto, which is based on a 1968 play by Christopher Bond. And in terms of sheer entertainment, the director makes the most of the show's ingenious structure, which balances barbarism with hearty helpings of comic relief.

This balance is exemplified by the bizarre, symbiotic relationship of Todd and Lovett. Angela Lansbury, who created the role of opportunistic Mrs. Lovett on Broadway, left an indelible stamp on the character. But Baranski takes Lansbury's maternal interpretation one step further, adding sex appeal to this cheery cannibal cook.

Sweeney Todd is all about extreme obsessions and appetites, and the longing glances that Baranski casts at Mitchell make Lovett's motivation unmistakable. Baranski, who played this role in a concert version in Los Angeles three years ago, also has the crisp diction necessary to do justice to the brilliantly devilish lyrics of such songs as "The Worst Pies in London" and "A Little Priest."

Amorous as Baranski's Lovett may be, however, Mitchell's Todd has only one thing on his mind. Holding his gleaming razor aloft as he proclaims, "My right arm is complete again!" Mitchell portrays Todd as a focused killer who is only genuinely alive when brandishing his deadly blade.

Lost in Todd's murderous thoughts, Mitchell sits trance-like while Baranski's Lovett chirps obliviously about a vacation cottage in "By the Sea." But when Mitchell sings of Todd's plight and plans, in "The Barber and His Wife" or the venomous "Epiphany," there's enough menace in his glorious, deep voice to raise goose bumps.

Despite their characters' gruesome business arrangement, Mitchell and Baranski keep Todd and Lovett from becoming total monsters. Todd may turn into a serial killer, but in the musical, as in Bond's play, he starts out with a motive. He is seeking revenge against the judge who deported him on a trumped-up charge, then raped his wife and abducted his daughter. On a political level, the show is a tale of corrupt power-mongers getting their comeuppance - "How gratifying for once to know/That those above will serve those down below!" Todd and Lovett sing.

Risking overstatement, Ashley leaves no question about how corrupt "those above" happen to be. Not only is the rape graphically depicted, but he also restores a scene, cut when the show opened on Broadway, in which the lecherous judge flagellates himself while spying on Todd's now-grown daughter, Johanna.

The show's original director, Harold Prince, added another layer of political commentary by using a factory-inspired set to suggest the de-humanizing impact of the Industrial Revolution. The chief disappointment of Ashley's production is that, instead of finding a new metaphor, he and set designer Derek McLane retain the factory concept, albeit in a new form whose tall, moving platforms show the little man getting even more lost in the mechanized maze of industrialization.

The entire production is splendidly acted (as well as beautifully sung and played, under Larry Blank's musical direction). Standouts in the supporting cast include Walter Charles as the demonically twisted judge, Mary Beth Peil as the mad Beggar Woman who haunts most of the action, silver-voiced Celia Keenan-Bolger as Johanna and Hugh Panaro as the sailor who loves her. The couple's lush delivery of Sondheim's lilting love songs offers further relief from the grisly central plot.

Sweeney Todd is one of the rare Sondheim musicals based on an idea generated by the composer. That makes it a fitting choice to launch the Kennedy Center festival, but due to its horrific subject, it's also a gutsy one. Sweeney Todd may not be for the squeamish, but it's a major work of musical theater, stunningly realized in this revival.

If there were any doubts about the artistic level or physical scale of the Kennedy Center's ambitious series of six Sondheim shows in repertory, those doubts should be erased by this inaugural offering. Sweeney Todd has set the bar for the Sondheim Celebration at Broadway's daunting height.

Sweeney Todd

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. May 21 and 22, 2:30 p.m. May 26; call for June show times. Through June 30

Tickets: $20-$79

Call: 800-444-1324

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