Sweeney Todd, Book by Hugh Wheeler, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...And he was naive."
A brilliant idea turned into a Broadway hit in spite of production difficulties that nearly destroyed two buildings and dwarfed the proceedings to a point where there was almost no show at all inside a building inside a building when Harold Prince produced and directed Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, Sweeney Todd, way back in 1979. Prince destroyed a factory, took it apart and reassembled the skeleton of it inside an overly large new theater in New York City. He added moving grids and removable bridges that seemed to be in motion more frequently than the large cast moved. Together he and the songwriter mounted a production that used the steel framework to create a theatrical event that screamed of steel. It was a Grand Guignol conceit, a form of theater meant to strike fear into the hearts of the observers in the audience. It worked and the show ran for a long time, exhausting Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, then George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon. Revived twice in New York, audiences have also seen Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler in 1989 and Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in 2005.
Now it is in Pittsfield at the Union Street headquarters of Barrington Stage Company. The company is reduced in numbers, the orchestra is nine pieces, the set is simpler with a catwalk that crosses the upper reaches of the stage and a cast of character actors who can make even the oddest member of the human race into the most honest, up-front and realistic creatures on the face of the planet. It’s a transition that works to the benefit of the piece. Always an intimate show, that intimacy now pays off handsomely in this wonderful theater that puts every seat seemingly within reach of the stage. When the siren screams now, and it screams a lot in Act Two, you almost feel the threat of something imminent coming toward you, for you.
Jeff McCarthy, let me start by saying, is a terrific Sweeney Todd. His good looks make it hard to dislike him, and the closeups we get in this more intimate setting, provide a rationale for his revenge on the mankind of London that becomes more human that it has ever seemed. His singing voice is powerful and strong. His gestures are appropriately wide. His facial expressions are sane and secure and mask his madness even at the end of the show. But the way he portrays the ironic insanity of his character is remarkable. This is, perhaps, McCarthy’s finest hour on our regional stages, or his finest two and three quarter hours at any rate.
As his inspiration for the final strokes of insanity, Mrs. Lovett, there is Harriet Harris. When it was announced that she would play the role the choice seemed so perfect, an antic clown who could follow in the footsteps of Lansbury and Loudon, bringing her own sarcastic sensibilities to a role that had never taken that tone. As directed, however, she is more a clone of Lansbury without Angela’s singing skills. Harris’s voice is a drone’s voice, toneless most of the time and off-pitch with regularity. Her romantic scenes, however, have a sweetness that are unexpected and her final confrontation with all that goes wrong around her is brilliantly played. She’s just not what was expected and so disappoints.
Ed Dixon plays Judge Turpin better than anyone else has done so far. His rendition of the song Johanna restores an historic theatrical moment so dramatic it overcomes the melodrama. He is terrific at exposing the dark side of the Judge, motivated less by love than by pure lust. His crony, the Beadle, is played nicely by Timothy Shew.
The young lovers are a bit disappointing. Sarah Stevens as Johanna tends to be a bit shrill and that takes away some of the girl’s intended beauty and allure. Shonn Wiley as Anthony sings beautifully and has a youthful enthusiasm but he makes a slightly awkward hero. There is absolutely nothing wrong with his performance, he just seems to be out of place in Anthony’s skin.
As Tobias, the slightly feeble-minded assistant who falls in, accidentally, with Todd and Lovett, Zachary Clause is marvelous. There seemed to never be an awkward moment for him, never a misplaced intention or a missed musical note either. The remaining principal players were all fine and the chorus was smashing. The orchestra, conducted by Darren Cohen, was perfectly situated and made marvelous music.
The sound man, who may or may not be sound designer Ed Chapman, pushed the musicians and singers mikes to extremes which didn’t seem necessary.
The physical production was, for the most part, brilliant. Wilson Chin’s set worked to perfection and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design was darkly brilliant. Jen Moeller’s costumes were a mixed bag, giving us a 19th century that was all over the place in time and visions and a bedlam, the mad house concept, that reeked of mid-20th century.
All in all, it’s wonderful to see this show in the intimate setting that it so needed. There are enough great qualities in director Julianne Boyd’s visionary production to make this a hot ticket item and a must-see production. Don’t let the negatives above dissuade you from buying a ticket, just go prepared to enjoy everything good about The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Harriet Harris and Jeff McCarthy; photo: Kevin Sprague
Ed Dixon as Judge Turpin; photo: Kevin Sprague
Zachary Clause as Tobias; photo: Kevin Sprague
Sweeney Todd plays at Barrington Stage Company at 20 Union Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through July 17. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.