He rises out of a coffin, a vampirelike creature hellbent on vengeance -and that is only the beginning of Broadway's latest, imaginative look at "Sweeney Todd," the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical theater classic.
The production, done last year in London to great acclaim, opened Thursday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre with Michael Ceveris as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, his more-than-willing accomplice in dispatching victims by means of very close shaves.
This is a singular "Sweeney," a delightfully idiosyncratic interpretation that, thankfully, is more a rethinking than a reproduction. Directed and designed by John Doyle, this compact adaptation of the show is done with only 10 actors (the original had more than two dozen) who also double as the show's musicians. it challenges memories of that 1979 production by inviting theatergoers to re-examine the show's book and score on entirely different terms.
Doyle's take on the show strips Wheeler's story to a directness that underlines the terror of the tale, set in 19th century London. It's genuinely creepy. Musically, Sondheim's songs are delivered in such artful simplicity that they sound remarkably fresh and clear, thanks to Sarah Travis' new, lean orchestrations.
And another level of enjoyment exists, too, watching the actors negotiate various instruments -with surprising success.
There have been small versions of "Sweeney Todd" before, particularly an appropriately nicknamed "Teeny Todd" directed on Broadway by Susan H. Schulman in 1989. Most recent revivals have, more or less, followed the general outlines of Harold Prince's masterful staging of the first production more than 25 years ago.
As Sweeney, Cerveris is younger than most of the others who have played the role. Yet what the actor lacks in weight and age, he makes up for in passion. There is a scary, cadaverous physicality to his performance, and he sings the part with ferocity.
Those expecting a star turn from LuPone, Broadway's original Evita, will be disappointed. She blends in seamlessly with the rest of the ensemble. To be sure, LuPone gets her laughs - and more - as the voracious, love-starved woman who bakes Todd's dispatched customers into pies. The actress, wearing what looks like a discombobulated Louise Brooks bob, also plays a mean tuba and gives the triangle a workout.
Those instruments are an important part of the action, and other members of the cast are accomplished musicians and singers. Particularly effective are Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina, who portray the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna. Both play the cello and, surprisingly, they find humor in the desperate romance between the two characters.
Manoel Felciano stands out as the sweetly sung Tobias, Mrs. Lovett's troubled young assistant, and there are equally fine performances from Mark Jacoby as the evil, lascivious Judge Turpin; Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays Pirelli, Todd's barber competition; Alexander Gemignani as the doomed Beadle; Diana Mimarzio as the beggar woman; and John Arbo, a veteran bass player in the pit of many Broadway musicals, as the supervisor of an insane asylum.
There is no literal blood-spurting in Doyle's stylized approach to the violence. But he gets the same grisly effect with artfully poured buckets of blood and the victims wearing blood-splattered white coats as they continue to play instruments and sing as part of the chorus.
Re-imagining Sondheim is not an easy task, but when the transformation works, it's a chance to see the master in a whole different light. Director Peter Hinton did it last summer in a dark, brooding "Into the Woods" at Canada's Stratford Festival that made Grimm's fairy tales grimmer than usual.
Doyle's intimate, disturbing take on "Sweeney Todd" may condense Wheeler's book and slenderize the richness of Sondheim's melodies, but it doesn't diminish the musical's power. This deconstructed "Sweeney Todd" still retains its ability to shock and to soar.
The big question Stephen Sondheim's 1979 "Sweeney Todd" always poses is, What's the proper backdrop to sing about cannibalism?
The original production set it in front of a hulking 19th-century factory, stressing the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. The one that opened last night at the O'Neill Theater seems to be set in a Victorian nuthouse.
I say "seems" because, in this version, directed and designed by John Doyle, much is fuzzy.
Early on, for example, white-coated attendants release Toby, an innocent waif, from a straitjacket, as if to make it easier for him to narrate the grisly proceedings.
Toby's master, a barber named Pirelli, was the first victim of Sweeney Todd, the outrageously wronged barber who wants to take his revenge on all of London.
So, rather than chuck Pireili's corpse into the river, Todd and his neighbor, the baker Mrs. Lovett, bake him into a pie. Todd then provides Lovett with a constant supply of meat for her newly thriving business.
At the end of the show, Toby is put back into a straitjacket, which leaves us to wonder if he has been remembering what happened or if it was just a madman's nightmare.
What was originally intended as an indictment of human barbarism has been repackaged as a surreal fantasy.
There is no orchestra - instead, all the actors play instruments, suggesting that we are watching a kind of play therapy in which the inmates are acting out Toby's ravings, which further triviaiizes everything.
The virtue of the severely reduced musical forces is that the brilliant lyrics have never been easier to understand.
The disadvantage is that the score lacks sweep. At times the accompaniment, with its clarinets and muted trumpets, has an oddly klezmer-like sound.
Much of the action is symbolic - a big black coffin is ceremonially opened and closed, Sweeney cuddles a little white coffin. Although Mrs. Lovett constantly pours blood from one pail to another, the overall effect is bloodless.
There is no tension between the savage irony of the story and the macabre beauty of the music. It's all on one monotonous level.
Michael Cerveris brings a sensuality to Sweeney, and his voice is full of genuine anguish. Especially in the first act finale with Patti LuPone, who plays Mrs. Lovett, we see that revenge and murder have their lustful side.
LuPone repeats the delicious - given the theme, I use the word advisedly - interpretation she first did in a concert version with the New York Phiiharmonic five years ago. Her offhandedly sardonic readings drive home every cutting moment.
Manoel Felciano is marvelous as Toby, and Mark Jacoby captures all the ugliness of the villain. Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina have an odd hysteria as young lovers.
Having the actors serve as the band (LuPone gets comic effects out of her tuba) enhances the sense of this production as clever, innovative but gimmicky.
OK, it's a gimmick- but in the end, nothing redeems a gimmick like success.
In John Doyle's cunningly bizarre staging of Stephen Sondheim's dark classic "Sweeney Todd," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, the entire cast - including diva Patti LuPone and Broadway rockgentry Michael Cerveris - not only acts and sings but moonlights as the orchestra. Sounds absurd, doesn't it?
Yet Doyle's revolutionary staging is anything but - and, seen in the agile flesh, doesn't even seem unlikely. Don't young lovers in every musical carry cellos? They do here.
But "Sweeney Todd" was always more of a chamber opera than a Broadway musical. This, in a sense, is chamber music- scored for small musical ensemble rather than full orchestra.
Hugh Wheeler adapted the sanguine story from a contemporary play by Christopher Bond that gives a Brechtian social slant to a beloved and bloody Victorian melodrama.
When Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, seeks vengeance on those who destroyed his family, he falls in with his lovelorn, pie-making landlady, Mrs. Lovett, and they turn half of London into unwitting cannibals. Not a tale for the squeamish or faint-hearted.
Doyle has been experimenting with this style of musical theater for years, and its effect is to bring an extraordinarily close focus to both the drama and the score.
Here, his close collaborator Sarah Travis, the musical supervisor and orchestrator, has jettisoned Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations and translated the score in a totally different, equally effective way.
This sea-changed "Sweeney Todd" still sounds absolute Sondheim, nuances, grace notes and all. The staging, certainly by Broadway standards, is Spartan: Set in a black-and-white madhouse, the set is virtually bare except for a black coffin and a floor-to-ceiling shadow-box stuffed with Victorian bric-a-brac.
The only real loss is that maniacal barber chair from which a flourishing cut-throat razor can dispatch its victims from a hidden chute into eternity.
Instead, we get literally buckets of stage blood, ceremoniously poured, while the late departed -who are still needed in the orchestra - remain on stage, slipping into grisly, blood-spattered white coats.
The cast is tremendous, keeping the proceedings going with such style, simplicity and involvement that they make it impossible to imagine the musical being performed in any other way or by anyone else.
As Sweeney, a surly, vibrant-voiced Cerveris dominates the action, getting crazier as the body count mounts.
His viciousness is matched by a wonderful LuPone - and, yes, she plays the tuba! Her intonations and timings are impeccable, with just the right combination of chirpy English Music Hall and flamboyant Grand Guignol melodrama.
This is an extraordinary evening: unexpected, thrilling and, in the oddest way, authentic.
Only a few days after Halloween - a holiday, the horror movies tell us, that brings out the beast in the criminally insane - the inmates have indeed taken over the asylum. Brace yourself. They're putting on one helluva show.
Sweet dreams, New York. The thrilling new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in a production starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, burrows into your thoughts with the poisoned seductiveness of a campfire storyteller who knows what really scares you. John Doyle, the show's ferociously inventive director and designer, has aimed his hypnotic interpretation of this 1979 musical at the masochistic child in everyone, the squirming tyke who wants to have his worst fears confirmed and dispelled in one breath.
First produced at the Watermill Theater in Newbury, England, and subsequently in the West End in London, Mr. Doyle's interpretation (recast for New York) presents its Victorian-age story of gory revenge as a tale told by a madman about a world gone mad. Set in a bleak wooden box of a room that suggests an underfinanced psych ward in limbo, this show begins with a wheyfaced young man in a straitjacket, surrounded by people in institutional white coats. He has the numbed look of someone who has seen the unspeakable. When he sings the show's opening words - "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" - you're going to attend, all right, whether you want to or not.
Surely no previous production of "Sweeney Todd" has had such a high quotient of truly unsettling horror or such a low quotient of conventional stage spectacle. Mr. Doyle, conditioned by the economic limitations of long years in regional theater, delivers what is, on one level, a skeletal "Sweeney." This production features one set, 10 actors (excellent) and 10 musicians (also excellent). The actors and musicians, by the way, are the same people.
Yet this concentration of resources only tightens both narrative pull and emotional focus. The original Broadway "Sweeney," directed by Harold Prince, was a big-picture masterpiece that placed the show's luridness in a distancing Dickensian social framework. Mr. Doyle's version, by contrast, draws you claustrophobically close. As they say at the entrance to spook houses, enter if you dare.
Mr. Doyle has taken a page from Peter Brook's staging of Peter Weiss's "Marat/Sade," in which residents of a mental institution act out the terrors of the French Revolution. But to call this production "Marat/Todd" suggests a literal-mindedness that Mr. Doyle avoids. He draws on classic imagery of madhouses and body snatchers to create a more ambiguous world of lost and battered souls, united for a couple of hours in a ritualistic depiction of a perversely satisfying tall story. Empty-eyed and defeated-looking in their German Expressionist makeup and thrift-shop clothes, they nonetheless vibrate with the energetic anger of folks done wrong.
For "Sweeney Todd" is surely the angriest major musical ever written, a sensibility that here becomes a galvanizing asset. No one is forgiven in "Sweeney Todd," from its vengeance-bent title character to the dopey romantic juveniles (nicely embodied by the cello-playing Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina). The show's score takes its structural and emotional cues from the Dies Irae, the Catholic Mass for the dead. And much of its ability to disturb lies in Sweeney's vicious assertion that "we all deserve to die."
Yet, like filmmakers from Tod Browning to Wes Craven, Mr. Doyle appreciates the cathartic value of make-believe carnage. He also grasps the wondrous multifacetedness of Mr. Sondheim's most ravishing score - its narrative momentum, its sharply honed wit and its harsh psychological insight.
Though it uses only 10 musicians (instead of the original 27-piece orchestra), this "Sweeney" never stints on the music's drama, intricacy or sheer beauty. Your ears don't just coast on a symphonic sweep. Every note and sound, whether from a plucked violin string or a tinkling triangle, seems to count fully. You become newly aware of the harmony in Mr. Sondheim's calculated dissonances.
And because the performers are the musicians, they possess total control of those watching them in a way seldom afforded actors in musicals. They own the story they tell, and their instruments become narrative tools. It is to Mr. Doyle's infinite credit that while he ingeniously incorporates the physical presence of, say, a bass fiddle into his mise-en-scène, 10 minutes into the show you're no longer aware of this doubling as a self-conscious conceit.
By conventional standards, the ensemble members are no casting director's dream. No one's looks match traditional notions of figures from Victorian melodrama. And yet for Mr. Doyle's purposes, these performers are ideal. They suggest average Joes and Janes, mauled by life, gone to seed and all too happy for the diversion of grotesque roles in a Grand Guignol.
Mr. Cerveris's stunningly realized Sweeney seems destined to haunt the nightmares of anyone who sees him. His face shadowed into hollows by Richard G. Jones's superb lighting, his eyes glazed with obsession and all-encompassing contempt, he brings to mind black-and-white photographs of serial killers from decades ago - pictures you at first avert your eyes from and then stare at in fascination. His voice has both the fiery sheen and coldness of Sweeney's silver razors. He is, in a word, magnificent. (He also plays a lovely lyric guitar.)
With her hyperemotional vocal stylings (and notoriously blurry diction), Ms. LuPone is not a natural choice for Mrs. Lovett, the cannibal pie maker and Sweeney's would-be love interest. It's true that her voice wanders dangerously in close harmonies with Mr. Cerveris, and her accent comes from some as yet uncharted country.
But, attired in torn fish-net hose and a rump-grabbing black mini, her Mrs. Lovett is a fiendish delight - ravaged, coarse and carnal in a way I've never seen before. Her approach is rooted less in the usual vaudevillian twinkle (embodied so exquisitely by Angela Lansbury) than in the fraying eroticism and bone-deep weariness of an over-the-hill B girl from a detective movie from the early 1960's. (It is also a joy to watch her toting and tooting on her cumbersome tuba.)
The rest of the cast - especially Manoel Felciano as Tobias, the boy in the straitjacket, and Alexander Gemignani as an eloquently deadpan Beadle - work on adroit equal footing with the stars. As sordid and slovenly as their stage personae are, they exude that subliminal, ecstatic hum that comes from a cast clicking in symbiosis.
The narrative reads remarkably clearly for a show without changes of scenery to map the plot's itinerary. Still, those unfamiliar with "Sweeney" may want to skim a synopsis in preparation. And a few of the visual tropes, like a white coffin Sweeney lugs around in the second act, can be irritatingly arty and confusing. But the big visual scare tactics, which involve little more than red light and buckets of stage blood, are more effective than the grisliest cinematic splatter scenes.
When the 1975 Kander-and-Ebb musical "Chicago" returned to Broadway nine years ago, critics remarked on how that show's time had arrived, how its flippant cynicism about American jurisprudence fit in perfectly in the age of the O. J. Simpson trial. In like manner, theatergoers may find that this raw new "Sweeney" matches their moods.
For many Americans, the course of current events, at home and abroad, has engendered an attitude that has progressed beyond cynicism into a wondering disgust and on into a blazing anger in search of an outlet. Unreleased anger has been known to turn simply being mad into madness. Mr. Doyle's production is perfect for vicarious venting. Instead of going postal, let Sweeney do the slashing for you.
It was with some trepidation that I attended a preview of British director John Doyle's new, stripped-down take on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (* * * out of four).
Though I wasn't lucky enough to have caught the first Broadway production of the greatest musical of the past 30 years. I regard the original cast recording with the kind of reverence associated with Talmudic scholars and Star Trek fanatics. In 1979, Jonathan Tunick's haunting orchestrations for Stephen Sondheim's score were delivered by a 27-piece orchestra, with a sterling cast led by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. So the notion that Doyle and his musical supervisor, Sarah Travis, had pared it down to accommodate 10 actors doubling as musicians made me a little nervous.
I needn't have worried. This Sweeney Todd, which opened Thursday at the Eugene O'Neiil Theatre, is as thrilling as it is bold. Travis' spare, spooky arrangements may not have the majestic sweep of Tunick's, but they're perfectly suited to Doyle's staging.
Rather than ape initial director Harold Prince's epic approach, Doyle uses a minimalist set and few props, forcing his actors to rely almost entirely on emotional expression and interpersonal contact, even as they juggle their roles with orchestral duties requiring them to play up to three instruments each.
Luckily, Doyle, who introduced this production in the U.K. with different performers, has acquired a company whose virtuosity is matched by a breathtaking chemistry. This is especially true of Michael Ceveris and Patti LuPone, who play the avenging Todd and Mrs. Lovett, the piemaker who devises a scheme to make his bloodlust profitable.
I had seen LuPone tackle Todd's adoring, amoral accomplice in a concert staged with the New York Philharmonic and was less than riveted. But under Doyle's guidance, her Mrs. Lovett becomes less cartoonish, at once funnier and more chilling in her wily desperation.
Cerveris is equally impressive in a more demanding part. Ideally, Todd should convey some of the menacing sensuality that distinguishes that other great musical-theater anti-hero, The Threepenny Opera's Macheath, but with a more pronounced sense of righteous indignation at the corrupt society that created him. Watching the relatively young, spry Cerveris pace the stage like a caged animal, his shaved head gleaming, you fully appreciate both Todd's dangerous allure and the deep sadness underlying his rage.
Other standouts include Alexander Gemignani, who puts a winningly wry spin on the unctuous Beadle Barnford, and Lauren Molina, who is drolly fetching as Todd's beleaguered daughter, Johanna. She plays a pretty mean cello, too.
Few shows have been as regularly reworked on musical, opera and concert stages as "Sweeney Todd," from elaborate Industrial Age epic to pared-down chamber piece. That makes it all the more bracing to experience a revival that's the freshest, most beguiling act to hit Broadway in quite some time. "Lift your razor high, Sweeney," the multitasking ensemble urges the murderous barber. And Stephen Sondheim's glitteringly lugubrious masterwork is lifted high in unexpected ways in an audacious reinterpretation, sure to incite passionate division as sharp and violent as the slash of Sweeney's blade.
Fans of the show fixated on a literal retelling likely will be frustrated by many of the narrative ellipses employed in this highly symbolic, surreal vision of the tale about a man possessed by grief and the thirst for vengeance. And those hungering for lush orchestrations of Sondheim's fiercely expressive score may also be disgruntled.
But the aim of British director-designer John Doyle -- who first staged the musical at the Watermill Theater outside London before moving it to the West End -- doesn't appear to be challenging Harold Prince's original 1979 production as the definitive "Sweeney." Rather, he seeks to carve out an entirely new experience that, for those who embrace the conceit instead of overanalyzing it, will be no less thrilling.
Plunging the show back deeper into the Grand Guignol roots whence Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler plucked it, and adding a liberal splash of Brecht-Weill haut-performance alienation, Doyle's mercurial reinvention enlists 10 cast members on a single set to do double duty as actors and orchestra, most of them playing multiple instruments.
The result becomes mesmerizing on a number of levels. The gruesome tale of the demon barber and his amoral accomplice Mrs. Lovett remains a compelling yarn, building here to a chilling climax in which horror is given a disquietingly human face. It fascinates no less as an exercise in theatrical artifice, reminding of the evocative power of stagecraft to elicit thought, stimulate imagination and summon atmosphere.
It peels away layers to reveal the dazzling intricacies of Sondheim's choral and orchestral structures under something akin to a musical microscope. And as a display of focus and technique, there can be few experiences equal to watching the prodigiously talented cast grapple with such a demanding score and complex lyrics while remaining in character, not to mention wielding props and often cumbersome instruments in moves choreographed with unerring precision.
Fact that not one of these separate avenues of attention detracts from the others is perhaps the foremost achievement of Doyle and orchestrator Sarah Travis -- whose unenviable job was to deconstruct and reassemble the score while balancing aesthetic considerations with practical staging concerns. (No actor can blow a clarinet and spout dialogue at the same time.)
Much of what makes this "Sweeney" so singular is the production's fusion of narrative, music and performance into a formula that foregrounds each aspect while organically uniting them.
The story is retold as the fever-dream recollections of the now-institutionalized Tobias (Manoel Felciano), and while the majority of the cast stare straight ahead with dead-eyed detachment, Tobias' unblinking gaze remains pinned to every second of the action.
From the moment he rises like Nosferatu from a black coffin placed center stage against Doyle's slatted backboard, with its towering Victorian dresser laden with apothecary accoutrements and bakery implements, it's clear Michael Cerveris is different from Sweeneys past.
He's considerably younger than the standard casting and may not have the gravitas of his most celebrated predecessors in the role, Len Cariou and George Hearn. But Cerveris' gleaming bald head here gives him an arresting ghoulishness, while his stern purposefulness never quite masks the tragedy of a man unjustly robbed of his life and family.
That pathos colors Patti LuPone's Mrs. Lovett, too, whose love for Sweeney remains stubbornly alive despite repeated evidence that his heart has been hollowed by loss. In her first Broadway musical role since "Anything Goes" in 1987, LuPone is a deliciously tarty vulgarian, looking like a decadent Otto Dix subject in her asymmetrical bob, tight skirt and torn knee-highs. The sight of this proud diva wagging her heavily padded rear as she honks on a tuba has got to go down as one of the more bizarre spectacles of recent seasons.
But what's perhaps more remarkable is the way LuPone, who's been known to nibble the scenery, blends graciously into the ensemble while quietly coaxing every ounce of humor from her role. Whether she's idly swatting a cockroach, polishing away at the hacksaw she uses to carve the bodies of Sweeney's victims or smacking a blood-drenched ladle against a tin bucket, LuPone is priceless.
While her British accent has improved since her turn in the 2000 New York Philharmonic concert version, LuPone still strays over several London boroughs and beyond. But her singing is sure and strong, lustily diving into comic numbers like "The Worst Pies in London" and the hilarious "A Little Priest," and showing a wistful hankering for something more than meat pies and murder in "By the Sea."
The gleeful malice of both Cerveris and LuPone makes for a rollicking first act, and it makes their descent into gloomier, more desperate moods in the second act more harrowing.
Rest of the cast is no less impressive. Playing violin, clarinet and keyboard, Felciano's ever-alert, febrile Tobias is a key element in a production notable for its intensity, and his achingly sweet delivery of "Not While I'm Around" is stirring in its crystalline emotional purity.
As the sailor Anthony, who rescues Sweeney and becomes the determined suitor of his daughter Johanna, newcomer Benjamin Magnuson registers as a distinctive presence, while Lauren Molina's Johanna is both dizzy and more knowing than the usual trapped bird. Even the more innocent among this production's characters seem capable of darker deeds.
That both Magnuson and Molina are sawing away at cellos through much of the action makes their assuredness all the more remarkable. Their duet, "Kiss Me," is a high point, while Magnuson's haunting version of "Johanna" seems to demand the sole applause break of the first act.
As in the London production, Sweeney's rival barber and first victim, Pirelli, is played by a woman. Donna Lynn Champlin delivers prime prosciutto while doubling on accordion, keyboard and flute. Mark Jacoby's Judge Turpin neatly drops his arrogant authority to expose himself in self-castigation and ugly desire in his take on "Johanna," and both Alexander Gemignani as a puffed-up Beadle and Diana DiMarzio as the unnerving beggar woman have striking moments.
Playing a larger house here than in London, the production has sacrificed some of its intimacy but is vocally superior. The switch from a bass to a baritone in the title role, which had the Sondheim faithful crying outrage when Cerveris' casting was announced, proves not detrimental at all, his softer vocals drawing out the sadness beneath Sweeney's monstrous actions.
But more than the individual voices here; it's the choral work under Travis' sure hand that's most bewitching. (The juggling of multiple mini-narratives and musical themes in the second-act reprise of "Johanna" is a small marvel.) While there's no matching Hearn's or Cariou's basso profundo rumbles on "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," the higher registers, especially in the song's spine-tingling final reprise, have rarely seemed more like piercing shrieks of horror.
That nightmare aspect is pushed just to the right degree in Richard G. Jones' brooding lighting. In the show's juiciest trick, the stage is bathed in red every time a throat is cut, while cast members quietly pour buckets of blood downstage, the dead slip into gore-stained lab coats, and an ear-shattering whistle blows.
The latter effect represents a pleasing nod to Prince's landmark production from a new incarnation that reinvigorates this monumental show with startling clarity and invention.