October 24th, 2007


(no subject)

Caught the Sweeney Todd revival last night at the Colonial with joyeous, with whom I share balcony season tix for the Broadway In Boston series. This revival was a compelling interpretation of the show and a great surprise to me. More of a workshop production than a Broadway revival (indeed this interpretation started that way), the minimal production is part dramatic reading, part recital, and part art piece.

There's only one set: a wood planked floor and high wall, a shelf of bric-a-brac taking up the middle third of the wall which serves as both props shelf and subtle decor, a piano at the bottom of the bric-a-brac and a coffin with separate plank cover on wooden blocks center stage which, at various points, is picked up, rotated, stood on end, and otherwise moved about. In this fashion it serves as a shop counter, dinner table, closed door, platform for Sweeney's barber chair, and, well, a coffin. There is no multi-level set, no mechanical chair, no searing bakehouse oven, nothing else. Most emotional and setting changes are marked with light cues. Stage blood is used in a very limited, very clean capacity.

Those going to the show expecting a Grand Guignol-style bloodbath are going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, there's more blood spilled on the logo and poster than there is spilled onstage.

There is no orchestra; the performers, many of whom have returned from the 2005 revival, play the instruments onstage themselves. The Beadle was usually on piano, the Beggar Woman played clarinet, Pirelli (in cross-gender casting) had an accordion and flute, Judge Turpin played trumpet and percussion, Johanna and Anthony both had a cello, young Toby had a fiddle, and Mrs. Lovett takes up the tuba (which makes excellent bally for "God, That's Good") but is mostly concerned with the triangle, as its ting often represents the exchange of money or Sweeney's razors glinting in the light. What makes this most impressive is the fact that, with the exception of the Beadle on piano, the show is performed without the benefit of sheet music. This is not one of Sondheim's simpler scores, mind you, even in this minimal arrangement, so memorizing the entire score is task enough. And when you accompany that with acting and moving set pieces about as necessary, you begin to realize the sheer amount of talent and hard work that each performer has put into not only their own performance but into the entire production as well. The performers also sang without mics, so there's another mark of respect from me.

And it works! At first the lack of full character interaction is a bit disconcerting (Anthony and Sweeney arrive in London and both face forward from different parts of the stage when they exchange their expository dialogue and song) but eventually there's eye contact, moving about, touching, reacting, and throat slashing. But again, the blood involved is not splattered about the stage; it's poured from one bucket to another bucket whenever blood is needed. Quite often it's Mrs. Lovett who's pouring the blood while Sweeney slashes a customer's throat, which while not quite a metaphor but not quite fully literal, emphasizes her role as co-conspirator in the grisly plot. Once dead, the victims don a white lab coat with bloody red collar, yet continue to interact with the show in musical and stagehand fashion.

This production, then, put more of an emphasis on the music and the performances than the melodrama and gore, but it was still just as unsettling, if not moreso. American culture has become a bit inured to bloody spectacles, and that's coming from someone who enjoyed the bloodbath that was Evil Dead: The Musical, but other sinister themes still can haunt us. The sparse wooden "room" of the set reminded me of Victorian-era crime scene photographs; some of the performers begin the show dressed as asylum attendants and ominously stand about (and nearly break out of the passive role and restrain Sweeney at one point) and there's the coffin, always the coffin right there in front of you. The show begins and ends (before the epilogue song, I mean) in the same silent, stark, creepy fashion. It was odd to then switch to smiling performers taking their curtain calls, but, well, opening night highs are unbeatable.

And I did what I don't normally do; I gave in to the theatrical swag and bought me a blood red coffee mug which reads "Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pies, Since 1846 - London - Paris - New York - Tokyo - Boca Raton" It's an interesting piece of bric-a-brac, and I admit the Boca Raton is a bit of a non sequitur, but it just adds to the quirk. (And after the events of the dinner at Chinatown's Pho Pasteur before the show, however, I shall not be drinking pennywort juice from the mug. It looked interesting, at least, but it tasted like pureed pea pod. That's great if pureed pea pod is your thing, and Wikipedia says it's often used to treat leprosy, so hey, bonus, but I won't be ordering it again.)