Top Pick – The principal gift which Signature’s wonderful production of Sweeney Todd brings its audience is honesty. From the first moment that London’s filthy underbelly materializes like the damned rising from the river Styx to sing the opening refrain, we know that we are in a musical about a serial killer – about a man so loaded with contempt for his fellows that he killed them for sport, and who doubled his pleasure by watching them be turned into meat pies. This Sweeney Todd (Ed Gero) is a man whose soul is already dead the instant he steps ashore in London. In St. Paul’s phrase, he is shipwrecked before he sets sail.
Of course, Sweeney is the victim of a terrible crime. Unjustly sent to an Australian prison by a corrupt judge (Chris Van Cleave) who had designs on his wife, Sweeney lives for revenge, and for nothing else.
We move through the story arc – familiar to lovers of musical theater – on a dark and inhospitable set. The excellent ensemble (Jean Cantrell, Matt Conner, Sean Maurice Lynch, Kevin McAllister, Katie McManus, Chris Mueller, Russell Sunday, Hannah Willman, and Weslie Woodley) slithers through the decaying city with dirt-caked faces pockmarked by disease. The only thing missing is the stench of human offal. There is no hope, no light, and no redemption.
There is, however, purpose, and Sweeney, who had been rescued at sea by the young sailor Anthony Hope (Gregory Maheu), attends to it immediately upon his arrival in London. It is to kill the judge and his beadle (a combination of bailiff and personal assistant, here played by Chris Sizemore). He secures his old barber shop from his old landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Sherri L. Edelen), who is by her own admission the purveyor of “the worst pies in London”. From her he learns of the awful fate of his wife, and that his daughter, Johanna (Erin Driscoll), is now the judge’s ward. He lays in wait for the judge, but at the moment his antagonist’s throat lies bare beneath his razor Anthony bursts into the shop to tell Sweeney that he has fallen in love with Johanna and intends to steal her away from the judge. The judge, incensed and terrified, runs out of the shop and then, as we say, the bad things begin.
The judge and the beadle being insufficient targets for Sweeney’s rage, he turns it on all of London. “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,” Sweeney sings, “and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit!/And the vermin of the world inhabit it!/And it goes by the name of London.” He proceeds to reduce the verminous population of London, one by one, with his razor. The eminently practical Mrs. Lovett – and this is the single joke which animates the entire musical – finds in Sweeney’s depredations the solution to her chronic shortage of meat for her pies. It is a cosmic joke, and the only one which makes Sweeney laugh – and he does uproariously, with Lovett in “A Little Priest”. Like a Calvinist who has become an atheist, Sweeney turns depraved mankind to its highest and best purpose – as pie filling, simmering with onions and carrots. And like any avatar of the industrial age, Mrs. Lovett efficiently reduces Sweeney’s victims to consumer goods, which she can sell at maximum profit so that she can buy a nice (if slightly fire-damaged) harmonium and dream of a seaside vacation. In this hellish context, a whorish, half-crazed beggar-woman (Channez McQuay) becomes a recurrent truth-teller, witnessing sins far greater than she ever contemplated committing.
This is a full-throated Sweeney; a roaring in-the-raw production, carnivorous and fierce. Gero’s Sweeney is no weenie; no sob-sister victim; no funny guy who kills people on the side. He’s a freaking serial killer, brothers and sisters, as deranged and dangerous as that lunatic who recently settled his dispute with the IRS by flying his private plane into their building. When he kills people, it is with a demented joy which seems almost orgasmic, and the blood spurts from his victims’ throat and mouth with responsive vigor. His victims do not, as the joking song suggests, “go to their maker impeccably shaved”. Sweeney kills them before he lifts a single whisker, and they go to their maker with a second mouth carved into their necks. We not only see the brutality, we feel it in our bones; the staging overwhelms us no matter where we sit. I was in the balcony, and I felt as though I was at a crime scene.
Why is this funny, then? Because we all secretly hold with Sweeney, to a greater or lesser degree. We all have our own murderous impulses, our own desires to turn the jerks and clowns with whom we live and work into meat pies, and it is liberating to see someone give in to the impulse…and to know that he, rather than we, suffer the consequences. It takes a bold artist to bring that to our attention. Thank God for Stephen Sondheim and book-writer Hugh Wheeler, and thank director Eric Schaeffer for giving us so plain and direct statement of it.
There was some initial question as to whether Gero, a fabulous dramatic actor without much of a recent record as a singer, could pull off this vocally challenging role. He can and does; he is not Len Cariou, but he’s better than Johnny Depp, and brings more depth and darkness to the role than anyone in the half-dozen or so productions I’ve seen. The remainder of the cast is more than adequate, except for the operatic Driscoll, who is a workaday miracle, and Sizemore, whose ultratenor will send shivers down your spine. In the production I saw Edelin seemed to be fighting a cold, but she brings a calculating eroticism to the role which is both pleasing and illuminating. She knows that with Sweeney, she is riding the tiger, and that at any moment he might turn from meal ticket and potential husband into a ravening beast. Edelin lets us understand that the possibility is thrilling to Mrs. Lovett.
Schaeffer’s direction is fearless and honest and has resulted in a piece of art. That being said, he also made some choices which made no sense to me. To wit (1) I have no idea why all the customers for a hair-restoration product being offered by Sweeney’s rival, Senor Pirelli (Michael Bunce) already have enormous heads of hair. Are there no bald sopranos in Washington? (2) When Pirelli’s young assistant Tobias (Sam Ludwig) takes off his wig he reveals a head from which a great deal of hair has been hacked off. Why? What happened? (3) Schaeffer, who professed to having discovered a construction-related theme to the story, briefly has the ensemble work over part of the set with power tools. The tools are, of course, anachronistic and the point, whatever it is, is lost on me. (4) At the end of the play, a half-dozen fully occupied body bags drop from the ceiling and twist suspended over the heads of the audience. But the whole point of the Sweeney-Lovett collaboration was to leave no body behind – to turn corpus delicti into corpus delicious. Better for Schaeffer to have dropped bags of meat pies, which would not only have been consistent with the story but would have been nutritious treats for the audience as well.
But these are minor points about a show which is, at bottom, fearsomely good. Of course, for Signature, and other theaters which play high-dollar bump with our hearts, the question is not whether the show is good but whether it justifies the seventy-six dollar ticket price. Here’s my answer: buy a ticket, and buy one for your sweetie.
Sweeney Todd – Top Pick!
Book by Hugh Wheeler; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
(adapted by Christopher Bond from the serial novel The String of Pearls, author unknown but probably James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Peckett Prest)
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Sweeney Todd is set to close April 4, 2010.
- Faiga Levine . Just Theater
- Susan Berlin . Talkin Broadway
- Brad Hathaway . Arlington Connection
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Missy Frederick . DCist
- Michael Toscano . Theatermania
- Jon Rochetti . DCTraveler
Mark Lee Adams . ShowBizRadio
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Tom Avila . MetroWeekly