Theatre, April 10
of Sweeney Todd progressed over the centuries—from urban legend
to penny dreadful to children’s bogeyman to Grand Guignol
melodrama—until a backstory-rich stage version from 1973 inspired
Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed, effective musical.
version, too, has traveled a circuitous route since its 1979
Broadway debut, appearing at opera houses and community theater
halls, in semi-staged productions with classical orchestras,
as a Tim Burton film shorn of its ensemble numbers and, most
imaginatively, in John Doyle’s 2004 staging (brought to Broadway
a year later) in which 10 actors play all of the characters
and provide the entirety of the musical accompaniment.
version played last weekend at Proctors Theatre, as diverting
a Good Friday entertainment as I’ve ever experienced. But
it’s a production I admire more than I enjoy, and for a number
Prince’s original staging filled the huge Uris (now Gershwin)
Theater with moving catwalks and stairways, placing most of
the action on a revolving cube. The original production seemed
swamped by its environment; the show does benefit greatly
from the Brechtian approach Doyle devised.
at heart, it’s an operatic piece. It contains some of Sondheim’s
most gorgeous melodies, and two ensemble pieces—the quartet
“Kiss Me” and the trio “Johanna,” sung while Todd is dispatching
tonsorial customers down a chute—are among his best work.
If ever a piece thrived on the colors of its accompanying
orchestra, this is it. Expecting as convincing an effect from
10 intermittent players is like expecting Turandot
to work with a wind quintet.
took a similar approach with Company, another Sondheim
show, and it worked brilliantly. But Company is an
ensemble piece that explores emotional depths, and the use
of actor- instrumentalists added another layer of irony to
an irony-laden show.
Todd remains a melodrama, and its principals—Todd himself
(Merritt David Janes) and his cannibalistic compatriot, Mrs.
Lovett (Carrie Cimma)—are cartoon characters drawn on an outsized
canvas. Todd’s obsessive desire is revenge, his razors are
his only friends (and so celebrated in a charming, creepy
number). Clad in the contemporary anonymity of white shirt
and necktie, Janes honored his character’s musical requirements
well, providing guitar accompaniment during his few offstage
honoring her Broadway antecedent, Patti LuPone, brought a
tuba onstage from time to time for a cheap laugh. Her neo-Goth
hair and garb suited Mrs. Lovett’s maniacal nature, even if
her English accent offered some perplexing vowels. She was
at her best in music-hall numbers like “By the Sea” and the
always-effective “A Little Priest.”
characters are even more two-dimensional. Anthony, the hero-sailor
(Duke Anderson) and Johanna, Sweeney’s long-lost daughter
(Wendy Muir) are the obligatory ingénues, and the actors played
them—and played cellos—with suitable intensity. More memorable
were Ruthie Ann Miles in a short turn as Pirelli (Todd’s first
victim) and Chris Marchant as the amusingly bughouse Tobias,
whose song “Not While I’m Around” was suitably poignant.
this production recreates Doyle’s Broadway version, it lacked
the caliber of performance you expect from a Broadway show.
Experienced actors bring an inspiring sense of conviction
to their roles, and, although this version certainly showed
a high level of accomplishment, there were enough rough edges
in movement and characterization to suggest a need for more
of that conviction.
that you’re getting a truly professional tour is the use of
Equity actors, but this is one of many traveling productions
that refused to sign with the union and therefore don’t have
access to that level of skill. That saves money for the producers,
but it’s a savings that doesn’t typically trickle down into
ticket prices. Theater can be a cutthroat business, so let
the buyer beware.