A couple weeks ago, my girlfriend, Shonna and I took a weekend trip to NYC. We had tickets to two shows that day, but for now we are going to focus on just one of them;Sweeney Todd. For those who don’t know, Sweeney Todd is the story of a barber who, for very involved reasons, goes crazy and decides to kill a lot of people. He’s downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Lovette owns a bakeshop and makes meat pies. When she finds out that Sweeney is planning to kill a bunch of people, she asks him if she can harvest the bodies for meat to put into her pies and a decidedly wicked partnership is born. Of course, there is MUCH more to the story, but this article will be long enough on it’s own.
Now, we had cheep seats for ,Sweeney. But, the theater was small and really there isn’t a bad seat in the place. A much better value than Phantom.
This new version of Sweeney is astoundingly different than the original staging. No sets, no ensemble, and no orchestra. The score is performed entirely by the ten actors in the show. Basically, when they aren’t singing, they are playing. The set is nothing more than a black coffin, two saw horses, approximately 6 chairs, and a folding ladder. There are no real costumes (everyone where’s black and white), but costume elements are added/taken away to allow the actors to step out from the "orchestra" to play their role.
Because I grew up watching/loving the video of the original production, I was half decided I probably wouldn’t like this new version very much. I mean…doesn’t Sweeney need and orchestra? And it surely needs sets! Besides that, the oft overly hyped Patti Lupone is playing Mrs. Lovette. They did Sweeney in concert a few years back for PBS and Patti played Mrs. Lovette in that as well….and she was terrible! WAY over the top, which I didn’t even think was possible with Mrs. Lovette! I hated her…and I was sure I would hate her now
As for the man himself, Sweeney, he is being played by a long time favorite of mine, Michael Cerveris. The more astute among you will know Michael as Broadway’s original Tommy and more recently as "Booth" in Assassins. I love Michael…but I have to say I even doubted him! I mean, he’s really known as a tenor. Sure, he hit some low notes in Assassins, but I didn’t like his performance nearly as much I did Victor Garber’s. Sweeney is a pretty low baritone. So, I had my doubts.
I’m going to go ahead and pronounce this new Sweeney the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage! It’s simply astounding. You would not believe how streamlined this show is! I didn’t miss the costumes or the ensemble and I certainly didn’t miss the orchestra! The set…well, we’ll get to that.
First apology: Patti LuPone. She was fantastic. A much darker and way less goofy Mrs. Lovette. Very Goth. I don’t know what the deal was with the PBS special, but she certainly pulled her act together for this production. My favorite moments for her are here deadpan delivery of the line "That’s all very well…" after Sweeney’s manic proclamation that he’s going to kill a lot of people and I loved while she sang the sweet and relatively innocent song "By the Sea", she was cleaning bone saws! She gets an A.
Second apology: Michael Cerveris. Michael, I never should have doubted you. Again a much darker Sweeney than we’ve seen. Also very Goth. His voice was flawless and his acting inspired. His best moment can’t be described well in writing. It’s during "A Little Priest" when Sweeney realizes just what Mrs. Lovette wants to do with Pirelli’s body. He’s reaction is completely unexpected and truly inspired.
As for the rest of the cast, there was not a single performance I did not enjoy. Here’s a brief rundown of the standouts.
Johanna and Anthony: Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson are the best Johanna and Anthony I’ve heard/seen yet. Trust me, these two can be the most annoying characters in the show, but this time, they were a delight.
The Beadle: Another character who can get annoying, but since he’s a bad guy, it’s generally more acceptable. But Alexander Gemignani plays Beadle in a whole new way. Very straight and deadpan. In the original staging, there was kind of a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship between Beadle and the Judge, but this time you get the feeling that Beadle doesn’t really like the Judge; that he’s just pretending to like the Judge for the same reason we all pretend to like our boss: so we won’t get fired! (J/K Tiff, I love you!). Very well done.
Pirelli: This is the biggest surprise in the casting. Pirelli is played by a woman! Although I don’t think Donna Lynne Champlin gives a truly remarkable performance as Pirelli, she certainly doesn’t give us anything to complain about. She much more understated than the original Pirelli. I guess I would have liked her to be a little more flamboyant. But please don’t take this to mean I think she did poorly. It’s just the difference between an "A" and "A+". She does have a million dollar smile, however, and if you see this production, I promise you’ll be impressed by everything she does when she’d not playing Pirelli as well! She convinced me that the accordion is one of the best instruments ever invented. Obviously she is a very multi-talented lady.
What didn’t I like about the show? Hmmmm…. I could have done without the buckets of blood being poured every time someone died, but that’s not a big deal. The only thing that really bothered me was Sweeney’s new chair. In act two, Sweeney buys a new chair which (in the original staging) he rigs up to automatically deposit bodies into the bake house at the pull of a lever. In the new production, they kept the explanation of the chair in, but not the actual chair or cool rigging system. Instead, a miniature white coffin arrives which is then held up each time someone gets killed from this point on. Why didn’t they just cut the chair bit?
Like the dorks we are, Shonna and I waited by the stage door to meet the cast and snag some autographs. Everyone was very nice and obliged us (except for Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin) who ran right out of the theater). Thanks for a great day, Shonna. I love you.