John Doyle’s extremely eccentric but never foolish production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a ticklish proposition, arousing wild enthusiasm and equally wild distaste. The divided reaction is understandable: Although Doyle treats the work with somber dignity, certain aspects of his production, like the fact that its small cast doubles as its orchestra, give it the air of a vaudeville stunt. Then, too, although Doyle’s somber approach involves keeping the stage largely bare and movement sparse, the performers’ constant need to switch from acting to instrumentating and back again creates a whole independent set of stage conventions that have nothing to do with the action of Sondheim’s music drama, so that the images Doyle envisioned are constantly at war with the images that make orchestral concerts fun to watch, so that what began as bareness can get to seem absurdly cluttered. Performers have to rise from the dead to pick up a flute, or scrape away on a cello downstage center while they’re supposedly in hiding. As Mrs. Lovett, Patti LuPone at one point has to alternate snapping out some of Sondheim’s trickiest lyrics with puffing into a tuba, to provide orchestral buttons to her own punchlines. She plays it very well (as Anna Russell said about Hunding), but watching her manage the ingenious switch is not the same as watching a performance of Sweeney Todd.
When you mentally clear away the orchestral clutter, Doyle’s production makes visual rather than literal sense. In his conception, the story is a dark, inexplicable ritual taking place in a prisonlike madhouse with an ominously clanging metal door. A patient, whom we later see as the halfwit boy Tobias, is released from a straitjacket and gag, contemplates the audience, and begins to sing the opening ballad. Others join in, taking up their instruments, till at last Sweeney himself is summoned from the depths of darkness, and the story begins. Like much of what follows, Doyle’s setup recalls countless earlier modern productions. Still, it makes sense for Sweeney. It’s easy to accept the notion of the barber’s vengeful mania as a demented boy’s fantasy–a phrase that could describe any number of great melodramas–or as the nightmare haunting someone who’s actually been traumatized by its events: If we’re supposed to think the boy in the straitjacket actually is Tobias (rather than a lunatic imagining himself as Tobias), then Sweeney‘s story, you might say, is his 9-11.
Sweeney Todd is a man who, thwarted in his desire for personal revenge, becomes an urban terrorist, taking revenge on anonymous folk indiscriminately; Mrs. Lovett, loving him and wholly lacking scruple, turns his madness to personal profit in a sort of housewifely folie à deux. Hal Prince, with his giant front curtain showing the elaborate class structure of 19th-century England, presented Sondheim’s dark view of the couple’s conspiracy as social satire: Man eating man was the way industrial capitalism functioned. Doyle’s version, like its focal character, is more isolated and more unhinged, full of images that puzzle rather than communicate. As the characters are killed one by one, they rise from the dead to put on white lab coats. Sweeney’s lethal new barber chair is a child’s white coffin. The blood that we never see Sweeney shed seems to be concentrated in a single symbolic bucket downstage right, presumably on loan from the Peter Brook Museum. (Internet chatterers have been calling the show Marat/Todd.)
The gnomic images add an outré tone to what otherwise can seem at times a rather drab evening of concertizing and logistics. You can generally follow Sweeney Todd‘s story, but very few moments have any dramatic effect: We get what happens, but we often don’t see the way it happens. The physical staging is largely static (have to be careful of those instruments), the overall atmosphere one of careful efficiency, rather than either the extreme passion of melodrama or the eerieness that you would expect the haunted-asylum concept to evoke. This puts the burden of proof, dramatically speaking, on Sondheim’s score, which holds up mightily well. Sarah Travis’s ingeniously reduced orchestration turns this big, sweeping piece into a taut, modernistically dry chamber work, à la Poulenc or Stravinsky. The difficulty is that skillful instrumentalists aren’t necessarily the best singers or actors: Lauren Molina’s cello bowing, for instance, is a good deal steadier than her vocal intonation as Johanna; Benjamin Magnuson, her Anthony, both sings and plays cello convincingly, but makes the character a drippy suburban mama’s boy rather than a seasoned young sailor. On the other hand, Mark Jacoby registers strongly as both Judge Turpin and trumpet, while Donna Lynne Champlin is both a credible flutist and an unlikely but saucy Pirelli. A big shortcoming, not to be blamed on the orchestra gimmick, is that Michael Cerveris’s weak, grainy singing is never a match for the tough, coldly inward Sweeney his acting creates–itself problematic in lacking the creepy charm the part requires. As for LuPone, New York’s most famous novice tubist sings effectively, but has not yet found her way deeply into the role, which she and most of the others could probably do if the instrumentalists were removed to the pit, and this Sweeney were more of a production.