When one thinks of performers inextricably linked to certain roles, names like Carol Channing and Yul Brynner inevitably come to mind: interpreters given an assignment that they proceeded to parlay into a career, so that their mere presence in the part brought an audience to its feet. To their ranks — but in an entirely different way — one can now welcome Len Cariou, the original Sweeney Todd in the 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical, whose momentous reprise of his Tony-winning role for two performances in London suggested a fusion of player and part destined to be no less eternal.
Cariou’s occupancy — now and perhaps, in an audience’s collective memory, forever — of this part exists on an entirely different plateau from the likes of Channing and Brynner, not least because the Canadian actor has spent the past 21 years well away from the show with which he and co-star Angela Lansbury stormed Broadway. But given the near-eclipse into which Cariou seemed to have vanished (we’ll pass lightly over such less-than-sterling subsequent ventures as Broadway’s “Teddy and Alice” and the West End’s “Ziegfeld”), how much more bracing his savage Sweeney in concert seemed. As he let rip with Sondheim’s fearful “Epiphany,” Sweeney Todd’s all-important razor raised glistening to the skies, it wasn’t just an itinerant justice-seeker’s arm that seemed complete again: It was Cariou’s idiosyncratic career, too.
The name player was the raison d’etre of this charity occasion, which gave two performances Feb. 13 at the Royal Festival Hall without selling out either one. (New York gets its own concert “Sweeney” in May, with Patti LuPone and Bryn Terfel top billed.) The reasons for the less-than-full house may have had something to do with the event’s above-the-title trio of North Americans, none of whom has much currency in London beyond the inevitable dedicated coterie: Besides Cariou, those on loan to Britain for the occasion included Judy Kaye, returning to the role of Sweeney’s sidekick, Nellie Lovett, that she has played twice before, and Davis Gaines, the latter lending an astonishing voice to the thankless assignment — though not as sung by this performer — of the lovesick sailor, Anthony Hope. (Having already performed Anthony in concert in Los Angeles, Gaines returns to it yet again in May for the New York presentation.)
Truth to tell, the gala was much more than a mere “concert,” given that it waspretty fully designed (unexcitingly, by Adrian Rees) and directed (very broadly by Paul Kerryson, who staged his own full-fledged “Sweeney,” with Dave Willetts, at his home theater, the Leicester Haymarket). Supporting a trans-Atlantic trio of principals was a (mostly) British supporting cast among whom pride of place — and voice — must go to John Owen Jones’s Pirelli, London’s current Jean Valjean in “Les Miz,” who transformed a potentially stock supporting role into a bruising study in narcissism turned nasty.
Other locals less happily filled the bill. A musical regular on the Continent , Pia Douwes made a monotonously shrill Beggar Woman, while Michael Cantwell’s wildly over-the-top Toby bulldozed one of Sondheim’s loveliest (and theatrically ripest) supporting roles. Charting a journey from innocence to a spirit gone ruinously sour, Cantwell (an alum of London’s first “Assassins” as well as Leicester’s “Merrily We Roll Along”) was reduced to barking “Not While I’m Around” at Kaye’s no less blustery Mrs. Lovett, itself as much a study in shtick as in burgeoning desperation. (Perhaps no one should have to compete with memories of Lansbury and of the sublime Julia McKenzie.)
There’s little that is crueler, though, than having to compete with memories of yourself, which is why one was largely apprehensive for Cariou. (Advance reports of a voice worn out over time didn’t help.) In the event, the only cause for alarm was that sounded by Sweeney as he embarked upon his murderous course amid a pitiless Victorian-era landscape of brutishness as transcribed by Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler at their most Brechtian.
Sure, Cariou looked fleshier than before, his voice betraying ravages it wouldn’t have once possessed. And one could have done without the occasional mock-Frankensteinian arm gestures, recalling nothing so much as Ian McKellen at his most grandiose in “Gods and Monsters.” But any cavils paled set against the performer’s overwhelming presence, beginning with the casually chilling “you will learn,” by which he instructs Anthony in the lacerating ways of life.
The real lacerations, though, were those left by the star, who turned a once-impressive study in hellbent vengeance into a lasting essay in cannibalism that — in theatrical terms — was simply immense.