Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
a kate west review
music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by Hugh Wheeler
directed by John Doyle
at the Ahmanson Theatre
Center Theatre Group
135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
playing March 11 - April 6, 2008
contact 213-628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

The much-talked about Tony-award winning new Broadway production of "Sweeney Todd" has arrived in Los Angeles. John Doyle (the same director who brought the new version of Sondheim's "Company" to New York) directs Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed operatic piece about a bloody barber this spring.

Sweeney Todd (played by David Hess), a long-suffering British barber (formerly Benjamin Barker), whose wife and child were cruelly stolen from him by an abusive Judge, returns to London years later to wreak revenge and falls in with his mad match Mrs. Lovett (Judy Kaye). In this take, the Greek-like tragedy is accompanied by stylistic orchestration and staging which, while certainly innovative, tend to take away from the raw emotion and passion of the story's essence.

The cast is strong, especially Lauren Molina as Todd's lost daughter Joanna and Judy Kaye as the nutty meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett, who takes in Todd and inspires him to start slaughtering people ("A Little Priest"). Frustrated over not being able to reach his nemesis the Judge, Todd grows even more reckless ("Epiphany") and it sends him closer and closer to the edge, until the final destruction consumes all. There are some inexplicable casting choices, such as Pirelli, the outrageous rival barber, being played by a woman (Katrina Yaukey), and while it is interesting that every cast member plays a musical instrument, it is also a gimmick that steals some richness from the original piece.

This production plays more like a stylistic concert version of a once-dimensional and multi-layered musical. The actors literally play out to the audience and do not make eye contact with each other or connect, leaving us even more disconnected. The essential horrific barber chair is missing and the blood and gore is also representational, with the actors donning red spattered white jackets when killed and red paint poured from bucket to bucket. The violence is so stylized in fact, that it distills and objectifies the intensity we should feel.

The music is still Sondheim great ("The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", "Johanna", "Green Finch and Linnet Bird") and the voices all Broadway quality, but the stories don't always come across and if you bring a friend who has never seen the show, he/she may be lost. For instance the "By the Sea" number where Lovett conjures up such delightful visions for the disillusioned Todd would read better with more nuance as would sweet Tobias (Edmund Bagnell) reassuring Lovett that nothing will harm her ("Not While I'm Around"). Every relationship, from the dueling barbers ("The Contest") to Anthony (Benjamin Magnuson) pursuing Johanna in "Ah, Miss" and "Kiss Me" and Todd grimacing through "Pretty Women" with the Judge would be better served with more interaction between the players.

The set is one towering piece on the back wall where the actors take props they need from time to time - another stylization, along with a not-too-subtle interchangeable coffin. To those not familiar with the story, it is about retribution and vengeance and how bitterness corrupts the victim more than the aggressor. It is a dark and tragic tale and the opera-like score deserves an epic-like production, in emotion and visual riches, but this modern minimisation diminishes the overall effect and may leave many cold and untouched.

The Original Score:
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979 Original Broadway Cast)

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