Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sweeney Todd Simply Thrills

By LAWSON TAITTE / The Dallas Morning News

W hat musical is wittier than Guys and Dolls and scarier than The Phantom of the Opera? Why, Sweeney Todd, of course.

The tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street, who escapes banishment and returns to London seeking bloody revenge, is literally thrilling, guaranteed to give you goose bumps and cold shivers. But Stephen Sondheim's lyrics tingle with some of the greatest sick jokes to grace any stage – in perfect and constantly surprising rhymes.

It's going on 30 years since Mr. Sondheim's most ambitious theater piece first debuted on Broadway. Last season's New York revival, which just closed, took the minimalist approach, dispensing with the chorus and even an orchestra. (The actors all had to play instruments.)

Lyric Stage, usually based in Irving, has invaded Dallas with a semi-staged concert version, which was reviewed at its Monday dress rehearsal. This one takes Sweeney Todd to the max. An orchestra of symphonic proportions and a huge cast fill up the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with waves of enormous sound.

You'd expect a concert version like this one, conducted with subtlety and polish by Jay Dias, to caress and sometimes overpower the ear. The pleasant surprise is that stage director Cheryl Denson has given the show a lot of visual appeal, as well, with the cast and chorus freely moving about on multiple physical levels. Her actors catch us unawares with very detailed and intimate psychological interaction.

This production, the only public performance of which is tonight, has one extra special asset, Julie Johnson as its anti-heroine, Mrs. Lovett.

The most giddily enjoyable moment in any good production of Sweeney Todd comes at the end of the long first act. Sweeney has just slit his first throat. His doting landlady, whose shop offers "the worst pies in London," gets an inspired idea of making good use of all that surplus flesh on the body.

In Lyric Stage's version, you see the thought springing into Mrs. Lovett's head as she tries to get her plan across to Sweeney. Ms. Johnson and her Sweeney, Greg Dulcie, turn the whole thing into a series of jokes in which they try to top each other with their witty suggestions.

On Monday, Ms. Johnson lost her place in the song for a moment and actually managed to turn that into a part of the performance without breaking character.

Actresses playing Mrs. Lovett have occasionally equaled Ms. Johnson in sly humor. I doubt that any of them, though, has ever had as rich or as free a vocal sound. Phrase after phrase echoes in the sumptuous Meyerson acoustics with a richness that just sneaks up on you.

Indeed, the singing all around is strong and melodious. Dara Whitehead Allen and G. Shane Peterman are superb as the young lovers, and Jackson Ross Best Jr. as Pirelli (the rival barber) and Michael J. Ross as Tobias (his assistant) do virtuoso work.

Accompanied by a full orchestra such as this one, Sweeney Todd calls to mind classical pieces from Carmina Burana to Wozzeck . A mere American musical comedy isn't supposed to be this intricate or this powerful.

But this one is.

1 comment:

The Calvinator said...

Great review. Hope the performance went well.