KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 7, 2000
It’s big. It’s bloody. It’s operatic. No frothy little musical diversion, “Sweeney Todd” is a grotesquely comic combination of nightmarish folktale, “penny dreadful” and socio-political commentary.
The legend of Sweeney Todd has been part of English lore and theater for two centuries. Known as “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” Sweeney was a victim of his society, falsely accused, imprisoned and exiled by a lecherous judge who lusted after the barber’s wife and daughter. Now, 15 years later, Sweeney is back, reunited with his “friendly” razor, and ready to take mad, indiscriminate revenge. His cheerfully enterprising partner-in-crime is Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a pie-maker who has a bit of lust herself, and hatches the plan to turn Sweeney’s tonsorial victims into tasty meat-pies.
Interlaced with the gruesome brutality, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler have brilliantly woven in humor, irony and social commentary. When the show opened in 1979, it was easily the most grisly musical ever presented on Broadway, a bold, audience-intimidating attack on the cannibalizing effects of the Industrial Revolution on a vermin-infested London. The show hasn’t mellowed with age. But with a deft touch, the audience can see the humor, shock themselves by rooting for the crazed bad-guys at times, embrace the innocent background love story and celebrate the triumph of good over evil at the end. Several years back, Moonlight Amphitheatre really nailed it, in a lavish production with 36 people onstage and two dozen in the pit.
Now, along comes the tiny Fritz Theater, newly renavigated by Duane Daniels, taking on, for its first musical ever, a mammoth endeavor like “Sweeney Todd.” What a brash, gutsy move… and sometimes, it really succeeds. The first act drags a bit, but the second act really works up a head of steam, while, of course, heads roll. The singing is excellent throughout, though the 6-member choral ensemble has trouble with Sondheim’s atonal tunes, rat-a-tat tempos and ever-more-clever lyrics. But all nine principals deliver. Duane Daniels and Melinda Gilb are delicious in their meaty roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, though both seem to be reaching beyond their vocal ranges at times. Daniels actually isn’t as terrifying as he’s been in tamer roles; surprisingly, he’s best in the character’s fleetingly sentimental moments. Gilb is hilarious in all her musical numbers. Angel-voiced Sandy Campbell is lovely as the ingénue, and as her unflagging suitor, Sean Robert Cox provides the musical surprise of the evening. He’s proven his mettle as an actor, and now displays a rich and mellifluous voice. Derek Travis Collard, as always, brings a delightful infusion of comedy to his character, in this case, the dim but decent shill, Tobias. Steve Gouveia is also funny as a flamboyant rival barber and a series of unsuspecting townsmen who get more than a close shave. It’s an actor’s fantasy: a neck-rolling sequence of death scenes.
In the long, narrow Fritz Theater, there’s only space for a piano to convey the lush score. That’s okay; bigger isn’t always better, and intimacy can enhance the horror of the piece. But there are some serious technical missteps here, with an overly intrusive, incessantly reconfigured set and oppressively dim, shadowy lighting. Director Bob Patterson begins the evening with a silent, coven-like opening scene that is completely indecipherable. Though the dark lighting is too much, and the production values are too little, the dark theme is just right for the Fritz. Kudos for taking a chance and for taking us on this macabre musical journey.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.