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 plea
sing nod to Prince’s landmark production from a new incarnation that reinvigorates this monumental show with startling clarity and invention.