Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, burst upon Broadway in 1979, sweeping into its embrace almost all the musical theater Tony awards: Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, and a nomination for Best Lighting Design. Close to operatic in many ways, its relentless dark view of human nature startled audiences, and the theatrical community as well, but its power and brilliance carried the day. Undaunted by the trails of glory from Broadway and a number of successful revivals, Generations Theatre elected to follow last year's triumphant Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson with its own production of the macabre musical.
The director, George Brock, inspired by Peter Weiss's 1963 production of Marat/Sade, set in a lunatic asylum, with the inmates acting out the narrative, has chosen to echo this approach, and this interpretation works well. The inmates are onstage as the audience enters, and stay there during the intermission, moving incessantly and silently to their own internal rhythms, beseeching and berating each other, creating a foreshadowing of the bloodbath to come.
Sweeney Todd is the assumed name of a barber falsely accused so the judge could ravish his beautiful wife, and imprisoned for 15 years. On his return to London, he seeks to find his daughter Johanna, now 16, and to wreak vengeance on the venal judge. As a barber, a weapon of destruction is readily at hand - the sharp blade of a straight razor. Todd is aided in his quest by Mrs. Lovett, who bakes and sells meat pies, and has an entrepreneurial idea of how to dispose of the bodies of the slain. These are the main characters, but there are eight other important roles, and an ensemble of ten, so the stage is filled with interesting movement and activity, characters clad in earthen-colored rags, a feast for the eyes, unappetizing but generous.
Kristin Warren portrays Mrs. Lovett, and she is superb. With a bell-like voice and perfect diction, she more than does Sondheim justice, and her beauty and vivacious energy anchor the play in reality, no matter the setting. She is a wonder.
Kregg Dailey plays Todd, but the part is underwritten - all slash and no nuance - and Dailey is burdened with stage makeup, and directed to be expressionless, so he might as well be wearing a Kabuki mask. Todd is dour, angry, and then dour again. As Act One ends, he sings about his joy, but this is ironic counterpoint to his sad demeanor. Todd is a maniac with an obsessive thirst for revenge, but we instead see here a man caught up in depression. Dailey as Andrew Jackson last year bestrode the stage like a Titan, dominating with irresistible power and bad-boy charm, but he here fades into the background, an instrument, a prop, rather than a compelling individual. The problem is in the script, but being directed to be glum and blank works against solving this inherited problem. Where is the manic joy, the relish of evil, the triumphant glee in successful misdeeds? All the flavor has gone into the meat pies.
Forrest Surles as the young sailor who loves Johanna captures both the masculine need for her but also an angelic naivete - he is tremendous, and can belt a song. Stephanie Styles as Johanna brings beauty and sweetness to her role, and carries well her romantic duets. Michael Bevan as the young Tobias provides intensity and an interesting involvement whenever on stage. Grant Brown as Pirelli, a seller of elixirs, is colorful and fascinating.
The set by Jodi Bobrovsky is appropriately forbidding, and the special effect of the barber's chair is excellent. The lighting design by Matt Schief works on all levels and enhances the dark ambience. The costumes by Paige A. Willson are unobtrusive, as they should be, but together create a panoply of poverty and degradation. The musical direction by Jack Beetle and the seven-piece orchestra are breathtakingly good.
Director Brock's staging is dynamic, and resonates like a Durer etching brought to life. His view of 19th century London is powerful, and he has brought this moral fable about injustice to stunning life. I saw the original production on Broadway, and like this better, partly because a huge theater vitiates the experience of what is essentially an intimate drama, but also because of the stagecraft and skill displayed here. Houston is fortunate to have Generations: A Theatre Company. The verdict:
An imaginative interpretation of a musical masterpiece is brought to exciting life by an outstanding cast, who create a tapestry of evil that is overwhelming in its brilliance, memorable in its power, and hugely entertaining in its human vitality.
Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through July 28, from Generations Theatre, at Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St. For information or ticketing, call 832-326-1045 or contact www.generationsatc.org.