The Sondheim Review
by Mark Shenton
Strangely, London roundly rejected Sweeney Todd the first time the show was seen here, when Hal Prince's original Broadway staging was imported to the vast Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Perhaps the space just drowned it, though it certainly suited Prince's epic original conception which did, after all, originate at one of Broadway's most uninviting and even bigger spaces, the Uris (now Gershwin). Whatever the reasons for the disappointing West End run of just 157 performances, Britain has definitely sought to make amends ever since. "In a way," the self-confessedly Anglophile composer told London's Sunday Times recently, "I wrote it as a love letter to London", and it has at last been reciprocated. Britain has properly reclaimed and embraced Sondheim's solitary English-set musical with any number of notable productions, most of which have sought to shrink the scale of it again, concentrating on the domestic horror of it all rather than the wider picture of industrial Victorian society that Prince's production tried to locate it within.
Two superlative British stagings, one by director Declan Donnellan at the National Theatre (originally in its smallest studio space, the Cottesloe, which subsequently transferred to the larger Lyttelton auditorium), the other by David McVicar at Opera North (a major operatic touring company based in Leeds), were both definitive in different ways - the first for the penetrating drive of its drama (and the still for me unrivalled pairing of Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie as Todd and Mrs Lovett), the second for its sublime musicality.
But another, at Leicester Haymarket by director Paul Kerryson, also re-established the piece's credentials on the grander rather than domestic scale, and Kerryson now replicates his impressive achievement there with an even larger version at London's Royal Festival Hall. Officially billed as "the twentieth anniversary London concert production" of the show, the one night charity gala (to benefit local HIV and AIDS charity Crusaid) was actually less a concert than a fully-staged production: an astonishing achievement on just two weeks worth of rehearsal and a necessarily restricted playing area, since the forestage was entirely occupied by the huge 40 piece orchestra, and flanked on an upper level on either side by a 30-strong choir. But Kerryson, who is an instinctively practical man of the theatre and has worked on so many Sondheim musicals at Leicester and elsewhere, adeptly and deftly demonstrates the kind of quick theatrical shorthand to solving problems that only such deep experience can bestow. He also knows how to steal from the best; the Act One finale, A Little Priest, with the original Frank Verlizzo poster art brought to life (she with the meat cleaver, he with the barber's knife) seems to be a reference now embedded into the very fabric of the show itself. Mrs Lovett's elaborate stage-business that accompanies 'The Worst Pies in London', meanwhile, no doubt comes from the stage directions encoded in the lyrics themselves.
Brilliantly aided by Jenny Cane's dramatically harsh white lighting and a resourceful design by Adrian Rees that located the action behind the orchestra on two shallow platforms, separated by a sheet wall of corrugated iron into which are cut eight small doors and one larger one, the show got off to a blisteringly effective start by using the Festival Hall's own imposing organ, always visible behind the stage, for those dazzling opening organ chords.
Under Julian Kelly's baton, reprising a duty he did for Kerryson's Leicester production with a far smaller, more electronically based orchestra, the playing of this much bigger one gave the score gorgeous musical weight and body. Over-amplification of the singers was, in the circumstances, probably unavoidable; but none seemed to need undue assistance to get beyond the orchestra and project themselves into the vast auditorium.
In particular, Len Cariou - returning to the role of Sweeney that he first created in the show's original production - proved to be a particular revelation. To have created one of the greatest-ever male roles in musical theatre was, no doubt, a huge privilege for the actor, but also a blight: in the twenty years since, he has never found a role to match it. (His previous London appearance, in an ill-fated musical tribute to the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, is best forgotten, as are some of his subsequent Broadway appearances in shows like Teddy and Alice). But as Sweeney, he was in such robust voice once again and full of dramatic power that it was as if the last 20 years hadn't passed.
Opposite him, Judy Kaye reprised the role of Mrs Lovett that I've previously seen her perform at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, and astutely combined the hilarious but chilling practicality of the character with real musical comedy verve.
Completing the American trilogy of principals, Davis Gaines returned to the role of Anthony that he, too, has previously performed (in the recent Los Angeles concert staging with Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranksi), and will return to again in the May Lincoln Center production with Bryn Terfel and Patti LuPone. Though his strangled vibrato has undoubted power, he was the weakest link for me, turning the lovely lyricism of 'Johanna' into an anthem that made it sound like he was singing 'Music of the Night' from his most celebrated role to date, the inevitable Phantom of the Opera.
Among the local participants, several more have also had prior connections with the roles they took. Michel Cantwell, playing an older-than-usual Tobias, has previously taken the role at the regional Oldham Coliseum; Mark Roper's Judge Turpin is a reprise of a performance first given in Kerryson's Leicester Haymarket staging.
But what seems even more striking and resonant about this show, twenty years on from its premiere, is how public events have once more conspired to make it alive and contemporary. Just as Kander and Ebb's 1975 Chicago, set in the thirties, proved to be unconsciously prescient about contemporary morality when it was revived at the end of the nineties, so Sweeney Todd takes on a new edge with the recent conviction here of a family doctor who was found guilty of murdering at least fifteen of his female patients (and possibly up to 200 more, now under investigation). That makes this everyday story of a murderous barber who also kills his customers none too far fetched, after all.
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