John Doyle’s brilliant, Tony Award-winning reimagining of the Sondheim/Wheeler “Sweeney Todd” as fever dream shows how a great artwork can yield new secrets when the context and metaphor are well thought through. Radical stripping-down, turning the epic Victorian-era revenge tuner into 10 thesps doubling as orchestra on a bare-bones stage, is founded on a fertile idea rather than some random conceit, with inestimable help from a prodigiously talented company (all vets of the Gotham revival and/or Doyle’s recent “Company”) making a welcome stop at the Ahmanson.
Harold Prince’s 1979 original transformed the entire cast briefly into Fogg’s Asylum for the heroine’s melodramatic act two rescue. Starting in his own U.K. Windmill Theater, helmer-designer Doyle simply completed the transformation: His slatted-wood set suggests an institutional activity room in which some are strait-jacketed, others mumble distractedly, and still others stand in stern attendance in white smocks.
Like “Marat/Sade,” another asylum-based U.K. import that challenged audience perceptions a generation ago, this “Sweeney” invites us into two simultaneous psychodramas: that of the escaped convict (David Hess) seeking vengeance on those who robbed him of wife, daughter and liberty, and that of the here-and-now inmates who — without letting us in on their given circumstances — are clearly finding titillation in the parallels with the Demon Barber’s bloody spree. (What better material to titillate them with? And us, too.)
Whether or not the show is a group delusion, or the private hallucination of Tobias (Edmund Bagnell), isn’t as relevant as the natural flow of other conceptual decisions once the central image of Bedlam is established.
Cast’s wielding cellos, clarinets and tubas has the feel of occupational therapy (if not weaving baskets or stringing beads, why not play instruments?). A floor-to-ceiling wall of Victoriana-crammed shelves — the odd piece ingeniously lit by Richard G. Jones to indicate scene location — hints at many serial killers’ mental “memory palace,” notably one Hannibal Lecter, M.D.
Chosen playing style, mostly full-out to the audience no matter who’s talking to whom, ingeniously reflects an inmate’s self-absorption and reverie, making it almost painful when two characters interact face to face. And tale’s monsters aren’t the Grand Guignol grotesques of past stage and film versions. On first viewing — and scarily, even on later viewings — they’re as normal as anyone.
Judy Kaye’s human-meat-pie-serving Mrs. Lovett is any woman of a certain age inappropriately sporting miniskirt and fishnets to attract an unsuspecting bachelor and eat him up (literally). Contrast between her everyday manner and ghoulish predilection is piercingly funny when she lovingly cleans her chopping tools while singing of her vacation vision “By the Sea.” (Through unforced but syllable-perfect diction, Kaye nails every laugh in Sondheim’s lyrics.)
David Hess’ Sweeney swings terrifyingly between normalcy and derangement, his ravishing voice ever hinting of private torments. Diana DiMarzio constantly invites us to wonder whether it’s the Beggar Woman of the tale, or the inmate of this institution, breaking in to warn of “Mischief! City on fire!,” and young Bagnell, eyes riveted on the narrative while sawing away superbly on his violin, wins affection even when Toby is on the sidelines.
Villains are surprisingly cool to the point of near-invisibility. Erotic longings of Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh) must be taken on faith, and Benjamin Eakeley’s Beadle is a generic smarmy aristo in clipped tones. Bland interps diminish story’s threat (and highly stylized settings may confuse those unfamiliar with its contours).
Plenty of danger remains, however, as concept and yarn intersect and hurtle to their conclusion. As more characters don the bloodied smocks here indicating “tag, you’re dead” and the tale’s madness starts to approach that of our real-time inmates, tension is wrought up unbearably.
Even the Epilogue provides no release, its cautionary lyrics (“No one can help, nothing can hide you/Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?/There! There!”) carrying unprecedented, inescapable sting. This chilling “Sweeney Todd” is about the 19th century, but not of it. It lives and resonates in our time.