Review: 'Todd' Tour Triumphant, Now and Forever
The current national tour of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical "Sweeney Todd" blew into the Windy City for a two-week engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre this week, revealing that the show is so strong as originally written that almost any style of storytelling will reveal its truths. If this fact doesn't mark the show as a true performing arts masterwork, then I don't know how anything else could. This show, and this metaphor-laden production of it, are miraculous in their revealing of the human condition.
A certain local newspaper ran an article a week or so ago which proclaimed that there are three different "Sweeney Todds," the original Hal Prince staging, the recent Tim Burton-directed film, and this one, the 2005 British staging directed by John Doyle, which hit Broadway in 2006. I actually think there are at least six—they forgot about the opera house versions (styled by or after Prince, to be sure), the "Teeney Todd" revival, which played New York's Circle in the Square twenty years ago (helmed by Susan Schulman) and the concert staging, specifically the version which played San Francisco, Chicago and New York earlier this decade.
One could debate the various merits of these versions, compare and contrast their similarities and differences and wonder whether a "virgin" audience member would be better off beginning with one in particular before encountering another. No matter. It is my belief that any staging of this show that remains true to the characters, to the script and the score and to its own unique take on the material will absolutely work, and will serve to further illuminate one of the transcendent music theater pieces of the twentieth century.
And so it is with the current production, here under the auspices of Broadway In Chicago. Much has been written about this award-winning production's use of the actors as the orchestra (orchestrations by Sarah Travis), in that the cast (all ten of them) remain onstage throughout, playing the cello, the trumpet, the triangle or some such thing. Four of them are credited with the keyboard. Truth to be told, Tony-winner Judy Kaye as Nellie Lovett and David Hess as Sweeney don't really have time to play their instruments much, and Benjamin Eakeley (the Beadle), Keith Buterbaugh (Judge Turpin), Katrina Yaukey (Pirelli) and especially Steve McIntyre (Jonas Fogg [who?]) seem to play instruments quite a lot. The others, Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony), Lauren Molina (Johanna), Edmund Bagnell (Tobias) and Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman) seem to play as lot AS they sing. Well, the first three are string players, and DiMarzio apparently carries her clarinet wherever she goes, tootling on it in between vocal phrases. The overall look is as if Joe Layton's staging of "No Strings" has infiltrated an outré-auteur "Man of La Mancha."
Now, wait just a minute, gentle reader. I just named every single person who acts, sings or plays in the orchestra of a great big Broadway musical (they do it all by memory, by the way), one which has been done with a full symphony orchestra and with actors numbering several dozen! How do they even do it? At the end of the night, I kept counting, literally astonished that I couldn't find more then ten people on the stage. It just doesn't seem possible that there is enough stamina, adrenaline or caffeine in the world for this sort of feat. And yet, there it is.
This remarkable cast, seven of whom appeared in the production during its Broadway run, consists of such superb musicians that the score is beautifully sung, and by musical theater voices (not opera, for those of you concerned by that sort of thing). Two others of them were associated with the John Doyle-directed "Company" on Broadway (same sort of actor/player casting), leaving only young Edmund Bagnell to be new to this cadre of multi-taskers. (He has an excuse: he only graduated from college in May of 2007).
And together, they create a musical and theatrical tapestry that gradually unfolds throughout the evening. Every song is sung (unlike the film), though the endings and beginnings have been overlapped and blended so that there is only one applause opportunity in the entire show beyond the ending of the acts—Magnuson's exquisitely sung "Johanna," delivered with such cream and honey, such vocal purity, that he thoroughly deserved the ovation he received. The show makes you wonder what it is—a contemporary chamber opera? A play set in a orchestra rehearsal room? A combination of "Marat/Sade" and "Quartet for the End of Time?" Why are they dressed by Doyle in mid-twentieth-century mental-ward black? Why is there a large shelf of knick-knacks up center (also by Doyle)? Are they all crazy, or just Toby? But none of this matters. What you witness is a story about revenge and love and lust and pettiness writ large, a story that you hate to see and love to hear. I swear that I heard every single word, too, and that they sang every single note as written, notes I never noticed because no one ever sang them before!!! (I may also have heard dialogue that I never heard before, either, though I will stop short of saying that new lines are now taking the place of some scene change music or action.)
As the two leads, Kaye as Lovett is a droll and very real Nellie, thoroughly believable and maternal and radiant and sad. Hess is perhaps too elegant to play a mass murderer, though he renders Sweeney's description as "a proper artist with a knife" and a man who was "beautiful" as quite believable, too, a first for a middle-aged man in the role. I wished that Molina's voice had been more pure as Johanna, and it is odd to see a woman as Pirelli (Yaukey was excellent, though). (Perhaps it was decided that four women/six men would work better in the choral sections than three/seven.) Eakeley was the sexiest Beadle you will ever see, and Buterbaugh the youngest Turpin—both fascinating choices. Bagnell was all hyperactivity and violin nervousness as Toby, and DiMarzio's Beggar Woman was sexy and smart, for once. Magnuson was both noble and awkward as Anthony, and bass player McIntyre died well as Fogg (the asylum owner).
On the technical side, Richard G. Jones' lighting magnificently illuminated the smallest spaces of the stage as it needed to, and the sound design of Dan Moses Schreier was especially effective in the second act. For fans of the original 1979 "Sweeney," the factory whistle and door slam are still effectively in place, joined to the 1989 small cast, the 2001 onstage orchestra, an opera house's attention to musical detail and the film's black and sepia art direction. This production didn't intend to be every man's "Sweeney," I think, but a very, very specific one. But isn't that what they always teach us, that the specific becomes universal?
I should add that Sweeney's death in this production is thoroughly unique, a moment so horrifying and audacious that no one in the theater could breathe. Such brilliance is in fact quite rare, and is a treat to be witnessed. But no matter what type of "Sweeney Todd" you prefer, or think you do, this one demands to be seen. It will surely be talked about for years to come. See it before the tour winds down—reported to be soon. You will certainly not regret it, nor will you ever forget it. No sir, not while I'm around.
"Sweeney Todd" is now playing in Chicago for a limited two-week engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph St.) April 23-May 4, 2008. Tickets are available through the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at (312) 902-1400 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.
From This Author Paul W. Thompson