The gripping tale of Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street has always been the Stephen Sondheim musical. So, the revival on Broadway recently stirred the pot. No one would want to see a replica of the original nor revisions to a beloved score. The challenge: make the revival different, edgy while preserving the integrity of the original music.
I had the chance to see the result last night. The show was billed as gory, bloody, and over the top by the musical reviews. Ironically enough, the beauty of the show is in the understatement not the buckets of blood. The show has ten actors, each playing several instruments contained on a small stage in a small house. The director attempted to strip away the gaudiness of the show in order to produce a raw and gripping piece. Ultimately, though, the show tries so hard but doesn’t achieve much.
While immediately encaptivated by each of the actors playing along with the show on their respective instruments (violin, bass, two cellos, percussion, clarinet, two trumpets, piano, and the tuba), that soon became distracting to watch. It was as if the instrumentation sucked away from the emotion of the show at critical points. Sure, the point was to create an almost Wagner-like concept where the instruments and corresponding thematic leitmotifs represent the characters. But emoting via instrument didn’t come through with full effect.
Consequently, the acting was severely limited without the concrete use of sets that place the actors in a location. Miming (the “pretend” use of objects that are not actually there; e.g. the air guitar) really took away from the illusion. I wanted to see the meat pies made of human flesh. I wanted to see the barber’s chair and the meat-grinding cellar. The show became overly abstract to the point where getting on top of a ladder became the judge’s bench. If one did not know the show beforehand, it would be awfully hard to comprehend what was going on.
Discounting the abstraction, the acting was forced. The bright spot was Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett. She had the most zing of all the characters with relatively good timing and delivery. She was well paired with her instrument as well: the tuba. The other characters were musically very good, often playing and singing at the same time. Many, however, lacked real conviction in their acting.
This show is worth seeing only to revisit the fantastic Sondheim score in a new way. It is edgy musically but falls flat with lack of punchy emotion.