'Sweeney Todd': Spare staging reveals richness of score, scares

Critical Eye

December 18, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- When director Harold Prince staged the original production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Broadway in 1979, the shrieking factory whistles that punctuated each murder made you quake. When Center Stage produced the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical two seasons ago, the blood-spurting razors gave you the creeps.

But in British director John Doyle's minimalist interpretation at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, it's the music that gets to you. That's because nothing stands in the way of Sondheim's score in this ingenious Sweeney.

Though Doyle's Sweeney is teeny, it's the most frightening version I've ever seen of this Grand Guignol musical about a barber seeking revenge after being wrongfully imprisoned and robbed of his wife and daughter. In a powerful demonstration of architect Meis van de Rohe's dictum that "less is more," there are no special effects -- no trick barber chair for Todd, whose close shaves include slitting throats. There isn't even an orchestra pit, much less a conductor.

Instead, the production features a cast of 10, each of whom plays a character as well as at least one musical instrument (usually without sheet music). Michael Cerveris is Sweeney Todd and also a guitarist and percussionist. Patti LuPone is Mrs. Lovett -- Todd's partner in crime, who bakes his victims into meat pies -- and also plays tuba and percussion. Todd's rival barber, Pirelli, is portrayed by a woman, Donna Lynne Champlin, who also plays accordion, flute and keyboard.

Doyle, who first staged this version of Sweeney Todd at a small theater in Newbury, England, in 2004, began mounting double-duty musicals 13 years ago so he could "put musical theater on stage in a way that was affordable," he explains.

But limitations can engender great art. Think of the glorious poetry that has been squeezed into sonnet form, or the magnificent music that has been composed for chamber ensembles, or the heightened drama that can spring from a scene featuring just two or three characters.

In the book Sondheim & Co., the composer told author Craig Zadan that he was attempting to re-create the effect of a horror movie in Sweeney Todd. "The only way to tell a horror story is to keep musical texture going, because in most horror films what really scares you, apart from the lighting and the makeup, is the music," Sondheim said.

Augmenting terror

Doyle's staging uses actor / musicians to make the impact of the music more immediate and inescapable than in traditional musicals. It's a performance style especially fitting for Sweeney Todd, in which the plot is related almost entirely in the score. Not only, Doyle explains, should the musical instruments "look like an extension of [the actors] and their characters, but nothing should stand in the way of telling their story."

In some cases, the instruments complement the terror in the plot. For example, Cerveris' Todd strops his razor, and the sound becomes part of the score. Or, he uses the razor to strike a note on a triangle. Simple, but chilling.

The inseparability of characters and instruments is also reflected in the casting of two cellists, Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson, as the young lovers. The result suggests that these two aren't just spiritually well-suited, they're visually and aurally matched as well. Later, when Molina's character of Johanna (Todd's long-lost daughter) fears for her life, the gifted performer manages to cower behind her cello at the same time she continues to play it.

Such multi-tasking clearly enhances the production thematically. Class struggle and one man's battle against a corrupt establishment are overriding themes in Sweeney Todd. But because Doyle's actors are also his orchestra, they never leave the stage. "There is no conductor, therefore they have to listen to each other in a different way," Doyle points out. To quote a Sondheim song from another show, "No One is Alone" here; the characters are interdependent -- a model for society at large.

The streamlining of the cast / orchestra carries over into the design, which is also by Doyle. Although he doesn't usually design his productions, in this case he had "a particular vision." So, like his actors, he doubled up.

Doyle sets the action in an asylum, where Mrs. Lovett's bakehouse assistant, Tobias (Manoel Felciano, who plays violin, clarinet and keyboard), is an inmate. The setting made it possible to eschew Todd's customary barber chair. "If you have a barber chair, then you get into a real world as opposed to a world ... that belongs to Tobias, who is our primary storyteller," he says.

A bare-bones look

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