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The cast of "Sweeney Todd," directed by John Doyle, Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Photo: Paul Kolrik

Brilliant Gestures
By Caridad Svich

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 W. 49th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

 

The new Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed and designed by John Doyle, bristles with imaginative energy and supple strength. Stripped down to a ten-member singer-actor-musician ensemble led by Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone, the cast makes even a longtime fan of the show feel she is hearing the score for the first time. Sondheim's score (with lyrics by Sarah Waters) is indeed the life-blood of this bitterly macabre and strangely tender 1979 musical. What mainly engages the eye and ear this time, however, are Doyle's choices, the intricate, imaginative dance he asks of his audience.

This is a ritualized, madhouse re-telling of the Sweeney story on a stage flanked by a cross-like formation of coffins on a wall of used and unused props and relics. Doyle dresses the musical down to the bone, demanding that the audience fill in the "scene," as it were, and at the same time look closely at it. This act of visual doubling--the real stage set against imagined scenes forged from the re-enacted story--is further complicated by having actors playing their own instruments. The young, doomed lovers Johanna (Lauren Molina) and Anthony (Benjamin Magnuson) play their love duets accompanied by their cellos. Judge Turpin (Mark Jacoby) shares trumpet phrasing with The Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) as they scheme. And young, crazed, initially straight-jacketed Tobias (Manoel Felciano) plays the violin as if the strings were extensions of his feverish, tormented mind. The multiple tasks of the actor-singer-musicians invite complex responses from the audience and the cast. Characters who die in one scene pick up their instruments in the next, suggesting that the telling of this story is never-ending, and that the murdered are haunted by their killers even in "death."

The multi-layeredness awakens the audience to listen sharply, imagine intently, and witness the acting and musicianship with a measure of attention that is unusual for standard Broadway fare. While not robbing the piece of its penny dreadful origins, and the requisite thrills of a story that depicts revenge with relentless obsession, Doyle's exacting, highly stylized vision demands much of the audience. There's no seduction by the beauty of the score or the romance of the performances. The story of the murderous barber lives, here, in the audience as much as on the stage.

That is not to say that there is nothing without the audience, for the recently released cast recording of this production affirms the magnetic grace and delicate musicality of the ensemble. Cerveris's Sweeney sits in his lower vocal register, intoning his loss and vengeance as if from a great un-located depth. Clad in black leather and heavy boots, shadowed in sculptural light (evocatively designed by Richard G. Jones), he exudes blank-eyed, chilly menace: a figure lost to himself, forever exacting loss from everyone around him. Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd and Patti Lupone as Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd," directed by John Doyle, Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Photo: Paul  KolrikLuPone's Mrs. Lovett is a jazzy contralto, casually, cold-heartedly scheming for adventure while egging her alienated but compliant servant-lover to kill. Decked out in a tight-fitting black mini-skirt and corseted top, she is a feral mistress cast in the Wedekind mold. Cerveris and Lupone's deadly dance of Eros and madness, equally brutish and intimate, continually captivates even when they are not ostensibly in a "scene." Felciano's Tobias, from whose point of view Doyle chooses to tell the tale, is a guileless, childish creature with the voice of an ardent angel and the stare of a wayward son. His reading of the ballad "Not While I'm Around," sung to Lupone's unashamed mother/lover embrace, is so full-hearted that it almost threatens to break the spell of this relentlessly revisionist, cold-lit Sweeney and thrust it into the brooding, soulful mood of a later Sondheim piece like Passion.

The rush of positive, powerful feeling from Tobias, however, is ultimately in keeping with the go-for-broke take on the score from the rest of the performers, whether they are in romantic counterpoint (in Sweeney and the Judge's duet "Pretty Women"), in rock n'rollish mania (in Sweeney's "Epiphany"), or in flirtatiously wistful dreaming (in Mrs. Lovett's "By the Sea"). Indeed, the power of Felciano's fervor in "Not While I'm Around" is an effective reminder of Sondheim's ability to place the beating heart of his scores often in secondary, less showy roles. Very likely, Doyle's decision to conceptualize this Sweeney from Tobias's point of view was cued from the score itself--as director-choreographer Matthew Bourne took his carnal, surreal approach to Swan Lake from the pulse and swoon of Tchaikovsky's score. Tobias has pledged his loyalty to Mrs. Lovett and vowed to protect her from all harm (not knowing that she is complicit in Sweeney's crimes). He surrenders to her in song, and his vow becomes the axis from which the rest of the show pivots. As Sweeney's murderer, innocent, troubled Tobias is the one most haunted by this lurid story, for it is Sweeney's eyes in death that will forever follow him as he lives on in the asylum that offers no true mental sanctuary.

The design is Expressionist throughout, with an especially compelling and macabre use of a child's white coffin cradled by Sweeney in the second act. Doyle may have been influenced by Peter Brook's asylum-set in Marat/Sade but, again, he seems primarily emboldened by the source material itself. Radically reducing the mise-en-scene and the orchestrations from the operatic and brazenly flamboyant stagings of Sweeneys past (including Harold Prince's remarkable original production), Doyle seeks to relocate the core of this burning tale of mad passion and rage, and give it classical meaning and proportion. Starkly presented, with its violence staged through symbolic gestures enhanced by flashes of red light and buckets of blood, it references the lurid thrills of Grand Guignol. Yet in our age of reproduction and replication, when images of violence and horror (fictive and real) are all too common, the excitement of this Sweeney Todd is not in the depiction of violence but in the knowledge that these figures, however startlingly fashioned by pulp conventions, are part of our moral order. Their gestures, full and empty at the same time, re-told yet fresh, are inescapably human. And the more we listen to Sondheim's score, with its passages of brilliance, vaudevillian flourishes and mournful cadences, the more its human-ness, its outrage and wonder at what individuals are capable of, transforms the cheap thrills into a penetrating examination of the dangerous aspects of the human heart.

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