Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Rockwell
Music Direction by Roberta Duchak
Killer performances in musical thriller
If ever a play deserved a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation, it was the mesmerizing opening night production of Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane. For a moment, the audience sat silent, stunned, and then rose to its feet, almost in unison, to cheer performance and performers.
Why is such a murderous story so compelling? The same question might be asked about many of Shakespeare’s plays – most especially Hamlet and Othello. And the answer is the same: when a body of work is in the hands of a brilliant artist, the end result transcends the individual facts. The whole becomes far more than the sum of its parts. The result is a masterpiece, a Tony Award winner.
In bare outline, this musical thriller tells the tale of an unsavory serial killer – the “demon barber of fleet street.” In another parallel to Shakespeare, this is not an original plot. The fictional character originally appeared as The String of Pearls in a lurid 1846 magazine (known as a penny dreadful). Sondheim’s version (based on a 1973 play of the same name by Christopher Bond) expands the story, including a secondary love story between a young sailor, aptly named Anthony Hope (William Travis Taylor), and Todd’s long lost daughter Johanna (Emily Rohm). Even more important, the new version reshapes Todd’s motivation from pure greed to bitter revenge. And this makes all the difference. Todd’s actions are terrible, and yet we can feel his pain and have a glimmer of understanding (if not approval) of his behavior.
In another link to Shakespeare, there is delicious comic relief provided by Mrs. Lovett (in a show-stopping performance by Liz McCartney) who acts as foil, comrade, and romantic and business partner with her creative idea for disposing of the bodies.
Of course, it also helps that the music (in the 40 songs) is vivid, often operatic, the voices wonderful, and the lyrics complex and provocative. As with many of Sondheim’s plays, the lyrics are so rapidly delivered that one must pay attention to catch all the subtleties. In Sweeny Todd, the theme of bitterness is constantly reinforced:
Speaking of mankind, Todd declares:
They all deserve to die.
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why.
Because in all of the whole human race
Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face
Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you.
And here is what he thinks of London:
There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit
And it goes by the name of London
Broadway star Gregg Edelman is perfect as this tormented, diabolical barber who was torn from his wife, and unjustifiably banished into prison only to return to find her and their baby daughter gone. His revenge on the particular evil perpetrator/seducer, Judge Turpin (Kevin Gudahl) expands to include his innocent customers. He shaves them, slits their throats, and then dumps them via his chair/chute into the bakery of Mrs. Lovett to provide the filling for her meat pies. Yes, this is the plot of the story, and — for years — kept me from seeing the play. I was wrong. This masterpiece is a cathartic experience, not to be missed. Here I must give personal thanks to Northwestern University Professor/Director Dominic Missimi, and his recent continuing education course on Sondheim’s works, which enticed all of his students.
Drury Lane Theater, 100 Drury Lane, www.drurylaneoakbrook.com, 630-530-0111, Tickets $35-46, Dinner packages ($50-68, ) runs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m., Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Running time 2 and a half hours with a 15 minute intermission, through October 9, 2011.
Another take on Sweeney Todd by Tom Williams
More of an opera than standard Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd seems to get better each time I see it. The dark tale captures your attention immediately with the chilling “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and does not let you go until the very end. Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet’s two level set and Jesse Klug’s suggestive lighting set the mood for Sondheim’s Grand Guignol oriented dark opera. The work is tight, scarey and wonderfully sung. Director Rachel Rockwell has the razor-sharp work playing larger than the stage at Drury Lane Oarkbrook. This Sweeney plays very much like the 1979 original and the 1982 national tour. It is another example of just how talented Rachel Rockwell is as a director! Since the devil is in the details, she sure has those devils in tune!
The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street revolves around Sweeney Todd’s (Gregg Edelman – in a terrific tortured turn) obsessive desire to seek revenge on the man responsible for exiling him, destroying his wife, and stealing his child. While awaiting his opportunity for retribution, he and the entrepreneurial Mrs. Lovett (fabulous comic timing from Liz McCartney), become partners in a horrific venture in which Sweeney Todd provides Mrs. Lovett with the pivotal ingredient for her meat pies after giving his customers the “closest shave” they will ever get. Aside from the obvious mature themes here (e.g., murder and cannibalism), there are some moments of startling realism in this show: one such moment occurs in the scene depicting Judge Turpin’s (Kevin Gudahl) lust for his ward Johanna (the golden voiced Emily Rohm), Sweeney Todd’s daughter.
Sweeney Todd contains many of the clever lyrics and stirring music that are the hallmark of a Sondheim production. In his darkly comic tale, the patrons get special “treatment” as we hear classical songs like the haunting “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “By The Sea,” “Pretty Women,” and the hilarious “A Little Priest.” The 1979 Broadway production won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book (for Hugh Wheeler) and Best Score.
William Travis Taylor, as Anthony, soars with the haunting love song “Johanna.” George Andrew Wolf, as The Beatle, and George Keating, as Pirelli offer quick comic relief while 13 year old Jonah Rawitz, as Tobias, lands his song “Not While I’m Around” as he exudes a fine stage presence. Rickwell’s production features an All-Star cast of Chicago talents as part of the ensemble with many leading ladies and leading men dutifully supporting and honoring the material.
Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre’s Sweeney Todd is another triumph for Kyle Desantis who promised when he took over as Executive Producer that he wanted to make Drury Lane a world-class regional theatre. He has done that! For a top ticket price of only $46, this Sweeney Todd rivals the Loop shows at twice the price. Sweeney Todd is a work of art not to be missed!
Date Reviewed: August 17, 2011
Enclosed are a few selections form the 1982 National Tour of Sweeney Todd with George Hearn as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.