John Doyle’s groundbreaking production of “Sweeney Todd,” with actors playing all the musical instruments, still looks and sounds nearly as good as it did in Gotham, but has run into some personnel problems on the road thanks to vocal strain — a frequent problem with this man-eater of a musical.
After opening in San Francisco, the show went to Boston, where David Hess, playing the title character, succumbed to vocal problems and stepped out for the rest of Beantown run. His understudy, David Garry, took over there and opened the Toronto leg. Alexander Gemignani (who played the Beadle on Broadway) is expected to take over the lead Nov. 21, continuing until Hess is able to return, possibly early in the new year.
Garry delivers a solid if less-than-brilliant Sweeney, bigger on sound and fury than meaningful insight or madness, but he never lets Sondheim’s score or Doyle’s concept down for a minute.
This classic Victorian piece of Grand Guignol about a barber who returns from prison to claim revenge on the judge who stole his wife and daughter is about to be given wider exposure by the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film version opening Christmas Day.
Hopefully, this will boost box office interest for a piece that looks like a risky road prospect. Despite a cascade of glowing reviews, the show played just 349 performances in New York — nonetheless enough to put the production into profit.
The real star of this version is Judy Kaye, whose Mrs. Lovett is a carefully-controlled and well-thought-out piece of comedy playing that gets the most out of the material without ever sinking into excess. It’s a delight to hear a 2,000-member audience rock with laughter at the cannibalistic jokes in “A Little Priest,” largely thanks to Kaye’s skill delivering those acid Sondheim lyrics.
Another major plus of this production is the continued presence of its Broadway lovers — Anthony and Johanna — played with passion and great vocal clarity by Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina. The way they radiate moonstruck wonder while sawing away at their twin cellos is one of Doyle’s happiest inventions, and Magnuson’s voice has grown in force since the show’s original opening, with his “Joanna” now its vocal highlight.
Some of the recasting, however, has been less successful. Keith Buterbaugh’s Judge Turpin looks so sleek, urban and contemporary that he seems to have stepped right out of Doyle’s production of “Company” (which, as a matter of fact, he did). And Benjamin Eakeley’s Beadle registers very low on the sliminess scale, causing scarcely any goosebumps at all.
Young Edmund Bagnell has the sweet face and angelic voice you’d expect to find in Tobias in a more conventional production. But he lacks the dramatic skill to handle the pivotal role he’s given in beginning and ending the show in Doyle’s concept.
Still, the cast remain strong musically, even though they let down the dramatic side now and then, which means the heart and soul of “Sweeney Todd” — its great, searing score — is delivered intact.
And it’s worth the price of admission to see Kaye swagger through a bit of tuba playing and then casually empty out buckets of blood on the stage while making sure every syllable rings out clearly to the rafters.
Not a perfect “Sweeney Todd,” but one that keeps the sparkle of Doyle’s version relatively untarnished. It’s to be hoped that some stability in the leading man department will allow the show to achieve its full potential.