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Sweeney Todd

Review by Polly Wittenberg


Music and lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
Book by: Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by: Christopher Bond
Directed by: John Doyle
Cast: Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd), Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett), John Arbo (Jonas Fogg), Donna Lynne Champlin (Pirelli), Diana DiMarzio (Beggar Woman), Manoel Felciano (Tobias Ragg), Alexander Gemignani (The Beadle), Mark Jacoby (Judge Turpin), Benjamin Magnuson (Anthony Hope), Lauren Molina (Johanna).
Synopsis: Based on the 19th century legend of a London barber, who is driven to crime when a malevolent judge takes his wife and child from him. His plan for revenge includes a cut-throat partnership with Mrs. Lovett, an enterprising businesswomen, who is soon producing the tastiest meat pies in London.

Polly Wittenberg's Review.

I�ve seen lots of Sweeney Todds. That includes the original grand-scale production in the cavernous Gershwin Theater that made a big effort to recreate the sinister aura of Victorian London using lots of ear-splitting metallic clangs and a very impressive industrial bridge. Later there was a theater-in-the-round production at the Circle in the Square (which happens to be housed in the same office building as the Gershwin). In London, there was a medium-sized production at National Theatre and even a production in a black hole called the Bridewell Theatre (which is actually just off Fleet Street) where there were no seats for the very small audience whose members were expected to follow the characters around the playing space while the blood flowed at all sorts of angles.

Now at the Eugene O�Neill Theater we have what I�d call a modernized, studio-sized version of Stephen Sondheim�s thriller with all of the 10 characters confined to one unit set. They are also doubling as the members of the orchestra. It all begins with the black curtain full of lots of scary-looking slashes. The playing space is covered with wooden slats and a sky-high set of shelves housing lots of dangerous implements. Throw in a black coffin, some chairs and a bunch of black-and-white (later red) costumes, and you can get the picture of the strong stylization that is the hallmark of this staging. And because the show is quite familiar to me and, I suspect, to many members of the audience, there is time to focus on how creatively the details, such as how the multiple murders are carried off, have been managed.

It�s a clever concept, directed and designed by John Doyle who developed the show at The Watermill in Berkshire outside London. That production recently played in London�s West End and has been brilliantly recreated here with a first-rate American cast.

Tony Award winners Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone are well known for their affinity with the Sondheim style and neither has ever been creepier or better. I certainly wouldn�t want to meet Mr. Cerveris as Sweeney in his big black leather coat in any alley. And seeing Ms. Lupone as Mrs. Lovett shake her ample rear end while playing the tuba is really something. With their fabulous diction and comic timing, these two are STARS, no doubt about it. And they receive terrific support from the less-renowned rest of the cast�John Arbo, Donna Jane Champlin, Diane DiMarzio, Manoel Felciano, Alexander Gemignani, Mark Jacoby, Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina.

To be fair, I must report that some underlying problems with the show like unevenness in the quality of the songs (mostly because the best ones are really great) and the turgid pace of some portions of the second act have not been solved here�as they have not been solved in previous productions.

My other two complaints are only quibbles about a thoroughly enjoyable evening:
1) Ms. Lupone�s sleek black wig is not nearly as �cute� at Angela Lansbury�s pigtails in the original production!
2) Despite the expert miming by Ms. Lupone and Mr. Cerveris at the climax of the first act, I really missed the floury empanadas!

Polly Wittenberg


What the critics had to say.....

BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says �Brace yourself. They're putting on one helluva show.�
HOWARD KISSEL of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says "Having the actors serve as the band enhances the sense of this production as clever, innovative but gimmicky."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST says "This is an extraordinary evening: unexpected, thrilling and, in the oddest way, authentic."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER says "Despite its intimacy, this is anything but a cozy "Sweeney Todd." The icy nature of Doyle's gripping production produces nearly as many goose-bumps as the lurid story and Sondheim's spidery music."
CHRIS JONES of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE says "You can see why Sondheim liked this show in England. It sends his gorgeous notes into the audience's veins more directly. Poverty here being the mother of considerable innovation, Doyle has figured out a cheap, intravenous drip system that cuts the spectacle and clatter and gets right to the primal musical screams."
JACQUES LE SOURD of the JOURNAL NEWS says "How much further can our expectations be diminished on Broadway, while prices keep going up? Does this represent "the magic of the theater" with an economy of means? No. This British import, directed by John Doyle, just goes too far towards nothing."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "Is John Doyle's stripped-down, modern-dress production the only "Sweeney Todd" we need to see again in our lifetimes? Certainly not. Is it intensely musical, constantly surprising and bloody buckets of fun? Absolutely."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY says "Is as thrilling as it is bold."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS says "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."

External links to full reviews from newspapers

New York Times
New York Daily News
New York Post
Chicago Tribune
Journal News
USA Today
Associated Press

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