A Show for All Seasons
Jersey Boys finally gets the juxebox formula right, and the new production of Sweeney Todd is nearly perfect.
The easy-to-like new Broadway show tells the story of The Four Seasons, and it has two essential things going for it. First, the back story of the group is not generally well-known -- we grew up listening to The Four Seasons but didn't know they were from New Jersey -- so its modest revelations have some impact. Second, and most importantly, the group had an amazing number of major hits. If Jersey Boys is basically a concert masquerading as a book musical, so be it; if offers a great opportunity to hear "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Working My Way Back to You," "Rag Doll," and so many other pop classics performed from start to finish in the manner in which they were originally done. (Listen up, all you producers!)
The book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, may not be entirely faithful to the truth. For example, it gives a big chunk of credit for the group's success to Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard), who wrote their music, while giving short shrift to Bob Crewe (Peter Gregus), represented here as their flamboyant, gay producer but never clearly acknowledged as their lyric writer. Nonetheless, it tells a fast-paced story -- particularly in the flawless first act, as Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff) narrates the history of the group's creation with street-smart flair. Under Des McAnuff's driving direction, the narration is seamlessly picked up by other members of the group. The second act turns melodramatic and the singing seems less joyful, but the show is carried by its music and boasts strong performances by all of its lead actors. The fellow who's getting most of the attention is John Lloyd Young; he plays lead signer Frankie Valli, whose unique falsetto was the basis for the group's signature sound. If Young doesn't sound quite as distinctive as Valli, he's close enough.
The chain-link-fence set designed by Klara Zieglerova is no big deal; and the projections of cartoon images, by Michael Clark, are distracting and annoying. (If you believe in your subject matter, why trivialize it?) But Sergio Trujillo's choreography is fun and lively. This nostalgia-fest is the jukebox into which you'll want to put your quarters -- even if you need about 400 quarters for one ticket.
We can no longer complain that British directors always ruin America's Broadway shows: John Doyle, a Brit who making his Broadway directorial debut with a new production of Sweeney Todd, has given us a near-perfect realization of the great Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical.
Doyle's decision to have all the actors play instruments on stage and thereby do double duty as the show's orchestra turns out to be inspired; any concern that it might be distracting or merely gimmicky fades very soon after the performance begins. The fluid direction and the perfectly calibrated orchestrations of Sarah Travis never leave an actor exposed or a scene unsupported. The internal logic of the production matches Sondheim's internal rhymes, and the "chamber musical" concept of the show has the added benefit of allowing every lyric to be heard with unaccustomed clarity.
It's particularly satisfying to hear those words when they're acted and sung by an extraordinary cast. Michael Cerveris brings a heartbreaking vulnerability to the title role, effectively turning this musical horror story into a tragedy. It may be heretical to say this, but Patti LuPone is actually superior to Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett because she not only acts the part perfectly but also has a better voice. Other standout performances include Mark Jacoby's intensely human take on Judge Turpin, Alexander Gemignani's brilliantly icy Beadle, and Manoel Feliciano's exquisite Tobias.
Our complaints about the production are minor. Several directorial flourishes might be gilding the lily. Pouring "blood" from one bucket into another after each murder and having each victim don a "blood" drenched lab coat after his or her throat is slashed seems a bit much. And why must Sweeney carry a little wooden coffin around through much of the second half of the play? These quibbles aside, here's a Sweeney worth attending -- and definitely worth remembering at Tony Awards time