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Sweeney Todd

Director John Doyle has stunningly re-imagined this well-nigh perfect Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical. logo
Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone
in Sweeney Todd
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Memorize this name: John Doyle. Now repeat it as a mantra while hurrying quick as the flash of a blade to the box-office of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where Doyle's magnificent production of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd is on view.

How jaw-droppingly impressive is the 52-year-old Broadway newcomer's thorough re-thinking of the acclaimed piece? I don't have the space here to itemize the myriad particulars that go toward making this Sweeney Todd a new-fangled Broadway phenomenon. To do so, I'd need a chapter in a book, if not an entire show-biz tome. There, I could fully extol the chilling beauty of the well-nigh perfect Sondheim-Wheeler work and detail how director-designer Doyle has brought out every detail of it as if it were a drop of freshly spilled blood on a clean, white laboratory coat.

Traditionally, there are two kinds of stage directors: those who skillfully draw out what's intrinsically valuable in a piece, and those who regard a play or musical as merely a foundation for layering on creative concepts. But Doyle can be placed squarely in neither of those categories; instead, he operates in both. With this Sweeney, he holds up the property up to be viewed in all its steely splendor -- much as the infuriated, homicidal Sweeney holds aloft his razors -- yet he has also reimagined the classic tuner according to his own unique vision. Did I say genius? If I did, I meant it.

Doyle has taken the Grand Guignol that was Harold Prince's original 1979 production and turned it into stunning Petit Guignol with his own spare set design, Richard G. Jones' ghoulish lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier's macabre sound. Of course, chamber versions of Sweeney have been seen before; Susan H. Schulman did one on Broadway in 1989, and Declan Donnellan offered another at London's Royal National Theatre in 1993. But the groundbreaking Doyle has trumped them all, doing here what he's been doing for some time at the small (220 seats) and small-budgeted Watermill Theatre in Newbury, England.

At Watermill, he has specialized in "actor-musicianship," which translates into the actors also serving as the on-stage orchestra. The 10 players he's chosen for the Broadway Sweeney are triple-threat artistes. They are (for the most part) well-trained on their instruments and are therefore prepared to do right by Susan Travis's economically eerie orchestrations. Much of the resulting business is inspired but, to avoid spoilers, I'll note only one canny tactic. It occurs when Fleet Street's demon barber Sweeney (Michael Cerveris) is interrupted by Anthony (Benjamin Magnuson) as he's about to slash the throat of Judge Turpin (Mark Jacoby). Anthony has blurted out his plan to steal the judge's ward, Johanna (Lauren Molina). At this thwarted revelation, Molina, positioned nearby, begins scarifying pizzicato work on her cello. Beyond that piece of staging brilliance, I'll mention that Patti LuPone plays the tuba while appearing as a Louise Brooks-type Mrs. Lovett (wig by Paul Huntley), but I won't tell you what the meat-pie purveying LuPone does while oom-pah-pahing.

No one will complain about not getting their money's worth from this cast, all of whom Doyle dresses in black, white and gray, with eventual touches of red that won't be further explained here. Cerveris as a bald Sweeney is both an accomplished guitarist and an accomplished Sweeney -- tightly wound, glowering, raising his razors triumphantly high. LuPone, who's acquainted herself with Mrs. Lovett in previous concert appearances, is a no-nonsense pie-woman dispensing her wares and clipping her consonants with aplomb. Perhaps the high point of the show is the Cerveris-Lupone challenge match in Sondheim's superlative "A Little Priest."

As to the supporting cast: Donna Lynne Champlin, in a top hat that's passed around throughout the proceedings, is hilarious as an accordion-squeezing and flute-wielding Pirelli. Also devilishly good are Molina and Magnuson, both playing cellos; Jacoby as a tormenting, tormented Turpin-cum-horn player; Alexander Gemignani as a piano/horn playing Beadle; the ubiquitous beggar-woman Diana DiMarzio on clarinet; the sweet-voiced Manoel Felciano as a Tobias with violin, clarinet, and keyboard skills; and bassist John Arbo, the sole performer present primarily for his musicianship rather than for his perfectly fine acting in the small role of asylum warden Fogg.

Spectrally pristine in conception and execution, Sweeney Todd has only one drawback. The authors think that, within their lovingly gruesome tale, they've embedded a profound statement about man's inhumanity to man. But despite Wheeler's lacerating dialogue and the diabolical intricacies of Sondheim's lyrics and often underrated music, they're off the beam in claiming at the musical's finale that we're all akin to the title character. "To seek revenge may lead to hell, but every one does it and seldom as well as Sweeney," the cast trumpets while pointing into the auditorium. Truth is, not everyone does it -- seldom as well or not.

On the other hand, Doyle does what he does better than anyone else could possibly have done it, and has created one of Broadway's all-time best shows in the process. By all means, attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

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