Food for spirit and thought, but don‘t eat the pies
By Lucy Komisar
“His voice was soft, his manner mild
He seldom laughed but he often smiled
He‘d seen how civilized men behave
He never forgot and he never forgave
Not Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street…”
John Doyle‘s production of “Sweeney Todd” is a thrilling artistic achievement. The Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) – Hugh Wheeler (book) collaboration is a powerful political parable about how a corrupt, lascivious upper class oppresses the poor and powerless.
This is not the Harold Prince 1979 Broadway staging where Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou and Victor Garber went through their paces in story-book fashion. Not another theatrical fantasy. Not the John Doyle treatment, which has you on the edge of your seat.
Director-designer Doyle, whose revival was staged first in London, has stripped it of the Broadway scenery and mood. It is at the same time more stylized and more realistic.
Doyle likes actors who are also musicians. The cast, reduced in number from the original, remains on stage throughout, sitting on chairs at the back or sides, often playing instruments, when other players are in action. It makes you feel that they have stepped out of the play, not quite into the audience, but not quite enclosed in their characters.
The work is adapted from a 19th century legend that, by all accounts, was based on the true story of a psychopathic serial killer who did not have the social excuses of the character we see here.
It‘s 18th century London, a time of poverty that subjugated a vast underclass. Sweeney Todd is a barber who rebels and seeks vengeance against a powerful man who wronged him. His fury extends to the man‘s entire class and into homicidal madness.
One has sympathy for Sweeney Todd (Michael Cerveris) when he returns after having escaped from 15 years in the Australian Botany Bay penal colony. The corrupt Judge Turpin (Mark Jacoby) had transported him so he could get at his beautiful wife. Todd was saved by a young seaman, Anthony (Benjamin Magnuson), who pulled him from a raft. The survivor can think only of finding his wife, and of doing in the malefactor.
His partner in crime is Mrs. Lovett (Patty Lupone), a shop woman he knew from his past life, who now ekes out a bad living making meat pies nobody buys.
Doyle‘s jarring staging is a constant in-your-face reminder of the horrors of the tale. His stark modern dress, all in black and white, shatters the feeling of make-believe, the way a black and white film wipes out the fantasy of color.
“There‘s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren‘t worth
what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.”
Todd‘s politics are anti-establishment from the gut. He declares ironically, “There‘s no place like London.” It‘s where the immoral privileged few making mockery of the lowly. Where you see the cruelty of man, there‘s no justice for the powerless. “One is in his place, the other his foot in the other man‘s face.” “It‘s those below serving those above, now those above will serve those down below.” “The history of the world is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” Out there men are devouring men, he declares.
How convenient for the plot, and the metaphor, to grind up the bodies of his victims, first the rich and later anybody who gets in his way, and sell them in pies. But is it just about becoming the eater instead of the menu? Is it justice to kill the oppressors? Todd has been so morally destroyed, that he has no compassion for anyone. The innocent are victimized in a never-ending circle of mishaps or betrayed trusts.
Michael Cerveris delivers a brilliant performance as Sweeney Todd , a ghostly, demonic figure with sunken eyes and bald head, his hunched body wrapped in a black leather jacket. He seems as dead as his victims. LuPone is stunning as Nellie Lovett, with an expression that is at once bright, crude, and raw. She exudes tackiness as she bulges out of her too tight dress. And of course, they both can sing.
Curiously, as Sweeney Todd loses his humanity, Lovett offers a reminder of hers. “By the sea,” an ironic charmer, is her plaintive plea for love. But director Doyle mockingly contrasts the British worker‘s dream of the seaside with the sight of Lovett cleaning her murder tools.
Doyle‘s set is like a collage, with shelves to the ceiling stacked and stocked with kitchen items, knick knacks, photos, pots & pans, small marble busts, as if the designer didn‘t have a chance to lay everything out but we are supposed to imagine the furnished rooms. On the stage there are black cushioned chairs and a black box which at times is a table, other times a coffin. White pails appear as the receptacles for the poured red blood.
This is in many ways an ensemble piece, as the characters blend into the story rather than standing out as stars. Doyle‘s sending them out of the spotlight to play violin, accordion, flute, viola, trumpet, clarinet, bass, piano — Lupone on the tuba – emphasizes that they are equal players in an orchestra.
Among the other cast members, Lauren Molina as Johanna, the young woman who becomes the object of the judge‘s lust and has a secret connection to Sweeney, has a lush soprano. Diana Dimarzio is affecting as the woman debased into a begging whore.
Sondheim‘s often atonal music is perfect for the high tension and surprise of the play. He writes his trademark delectable, sophisticated lyrics; I‘d single out “Ladies in their sensitivities.”
In fact, I‘d single out this show as one you shouldn‘t miss.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Adapted from a work by Christopher Bond. Directed and designed by John Doyle. Starring Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, John Arbo, Donna Lynne Champlin, Diana DiMarzio, Manoel Felciano, Alexander Gemignani, Mark Jacoby, Benjamin Magnuson, Lauren Molina.
Eugene O’Neill Theatre. 230 West 49th Street. Tue 7pm; Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 2pm. Running time 2:35. $36.25-$101.25. http://sweeneytoddonbroadway.com/.
Photos by Paul Kolnik