Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sweeney Todd review

I saw Sweeney Todd this past Sunday, February 15, 2009 at the Scranton Cultural Center, courtesy of a friend. Aside from a quick read-through of the Wikipedia entry this was my first exposure to the story, not counting fleeting references in popular culture (the elephantine aliens in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Footfall catch a bit of it while scanning TV broadcasts from Earth) and my confusing childhood ownership of a die-cast Corgi Rockets Todd Sweeney race car.

I enjoy going to the theater to see live performances, even ballet. (Real men can admit they enjoy ballet. I like quiche, too. You wanna make something of it?) To know that every moment of practice and preparation and training has led to this moment on stage, right now, which passes before it can even be comprehended and makes way for the next. What can the performer do with that moment? What framework have the writer, composer, director, and the history and tradition of the particular piece provided?

I've seen a few live performances in my life. The ballets Copellia and The Nutcracker (several different stagings, never the same one twice), The Fantasticks and Bus Stop and The House of Blue Leaves and The Zoo Story and Anything Goes in college, She Stoops to Conquer and Lysistrata at my alma mater a few years back, Les Misérables in London, RENT in Scranton, Twelfth Night at the local community college, STOMP many years ago, and a few others. Sweeney Todd is just the latest.

The other productions had one or more characteristics in common: Music that got under your skin and stayed with you ("Look Down" and "Who Am I?" and "One Day More" from Les Mis, "Try to Remember" and "It Depends on What You Pay" - which I remember as "Rape Song" - from The Fantasticks); characters who you could relate to, or at least care about; stories that carried you along, even if you knew where they were going already; a message, a moral, a theme...something.

Sweeney Todd is different.

For the most part the characters are one-dimensional. Sweeney Todd is an angry spirit of vengeance from the moment he rises from his own coffin; his anger grows, and eventually blinds him entirely, threatening to destroy everyone he once held dear. Mrs. Lovett is a monster with a few tinges of humanity and a couple of laugh lines; like the Thénardiers in Les Mis, she is such a scene-chewing character that it is impossible not to get a kick out of her. Anthony, who resembles in many ways Antonio from Twelfth Night, is an earnest but dopey soul, befuddled by infatuation with the similarly dopey and love-struck Johanna, Sweeney Todd's stolen daughter and the ward and love interest of the monstrous Judge Turpin, who exiled Sweeney Todd in his previous identity of Benjamin Barker in a plot to have Barker's beloved wife for himself. The Beggar Woman is tragic on multiple levels, Pirelli is little more than an accent, Jonas Fogg is a sub-monster with precious little to say or do, the Beadle is more a clown and stooge than villain. Tobias, Pirelli's (and later Mrs. Lovett's) half-witted assistant, is the only character with a bit of depth; he wanders through the story and pieces together what is happening, losing what little he has of a mind in the process. It is through his somewhat deranged voice that this tale is told, at least initially.

There is no character in this cast that really makes you care about them. Sweeney Todd got screwed; yes, that's sad, but, you know, if everyone who had crap happen to them became a serial killer, there would be a lot fewer people around to seek revenge on. Mrs. Lovett's moments of humanity displayed in her reverie "By the Sea" are offset by frequent reminders that she is as monstrous a villain as the Judge. The Old Beggar Woman and Johanna are tragic, but ultimately annoying. Anthony almost elicits sympathy in his quest to free Johanna from her confinement and run off with her. Tobias - well, yes, what happens to him in the end is more tragic than all those who get their throats neatly slashed, which is nearly every other character in the story, but his dim-wittedness makes it hard to relate to him.

No performer really thrilled or disappointed me. All were quite up to playing their roles. Merrit David James's Sweeney Todd was angry from beginning to end. Carrie Cimma played Mrs. Lovett with lusty gusto. Standbys Andrew Crowe and Marita Stryker (who has a beautiful singing voice) played the young lovers Anthony and Johanna quite well. Patty Lohr's Old Beggar Woman flicked easily through all of the derangements of her character, from a pathetic poor thing to a lewd and vulgar creature of the streets to a moment of clarity in "City on Fire." Ruthie Ann Miles's Pirelli was good for a laugh, but seemed to be more matter-of-fact than menacing in her confrontation with Todd. Judge Turpin, as played by David Alan Marshall, was appropriately detestable, while Matt Cusack's Jonas Fogg had a bit of a Mad Scientist bent. (Maybe it was the glasses and lab coat.) The Beadle was played by Bob Bohan as a buffoon, in a characterization that clashed somewhat with the more spare and severe performances around him. Chris Marchant's Tobias shuffled and cringed and was pathetic, tragic, abused, and earnest, somewhat reminiscent of poor Smike from Nicholas Nickelby.

Staging was consistent with the 2004 revival version, with the actors also serving as the orchestra. Murders were accompanied by an ear-splitting steam whistle, a change in the lighting, a momentary tabelau freeze, and a costume change as the victim donned a blood-stained white smock. Impending deaths were often foreshadowed as other characters approached the doomed one while carrying the smock.

While the music of Sweeney Todd has received high praise from others, I found it mostly forgettable. Only "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" stuck with me as I left the theater. "A Little Priest" made me want to stand up and yell at someone, or at least throttle Stephen Sondheim.* "By the Sea" was alternately funny, touching, and horrific.

I am very grateful to my friend for the opportunity to see this performance. I would be very interested in hearing from others who have seen the original, the revival, and the current tour, to see how their experiences compare to my own.

One quibble: Sweeney Todd sings of his silver-handled razor. The image on the cover of the playbill shows a razor with a handle that appears to be walnut or some other wood.

*This song violates all of John Cleese's rules of comedy:
1. No puns.
2. No puns.


supertiff said...

i tried to watch the sweeney todd movie.
meh, i say.
LOVE les mis, though.
now i have 'one day more stuck in my head.'

i wish it would go on national tour again, so i could take my littlest sisters.

tomorrow, we're going to see RENT again. and some of the original cast members will be performing.
i'm super excited.

D.B. Echo said...

I loved RENT last year, but now I think it would be weird seeing it with a different cast - even if it is the Broadway cast!

I am now MySpace friends with Christine Dwyer, who was Maureen in last year's tour of RENT. I rock.

hedera said...

I saw Sweeney Todd live in San Francisco a couple of decades ago. I agree with your review. No matter how competent the cast, it's a dismal, depressing story about unlikeable people. And none of the songs stick in your head. (Some years ago my pick-up chorus at work used to do Bring Him Home from Les Miz as a showstopper.)

Oliver Brownlow said...

I think Sweeney Todd is one of the greatest musicals ever written, but I was intrigued by your review, which identifies precisely what the major pitfalls are for performers acting the piece. Try to get your hands on the complete version of the Original Broadway Cast Album with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou.

Anonymous said...

Having now seen both the original and the revival, I would say that the problem is in the version you saw. The staging of this latest rendition quite literally sucks the life out of what was, as originally presented, a very good show.

Anonymous said...

Uh, you spelled COPPELIA wrong. FAIL!

D.B. Echo said...

AAAAAGH!!! Well, too late to change it now. Well, I could. Dammit.