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The Demon Barber at Close Quarters

September 11, 2007

Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is a big musical — large in passion and in production values. It originally opened in 1979 at one of Broadway's biggest theaters, in Harold Prince's hugely operatic production, and went on to be performed by opera companies as well as in theaters around the world. Come Christmas, it will be a big, expensive movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.
And yet, the American Conservatory Theater opened its 41st season Tuesday night in the Geary Theater with an interactive, chamber-music version of Sweeney Todd — 10 musicians took on the work of a 27-piece orchestra, all while also singing multiple roles. Scaling down the musical, trimming it slightly, and presenting it in a Brechtian fashion with a virtual backstage view, gave the work added intensity and immediacy. Scottish director John Doyle's production comes from London through Broadway (where it picked up a couple of Tony Awards) and to San Francisco, for its West Coast premiere before a 17-city U.S. and Canadian tour.

Sweeney Todd (David Hess) and Mrs. Lovett (Judy Kaye)

Photo by David Allen

Originally from the Victorian gossip magazine Penny Dreadful, the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has taken on many forms, but its essence has remained the same: a wronged man's all-consuming, completely destructive, quest for revenge. In the Doyle production, David Hess' portrayal of the title role assures authenticity and success: He is "scary-good" in his stage presence and his singing. He conveys the music so well that his performance is greater than the sum of its parts. That's because even without a big voice, Hess excels at the most important aspect of musical performance: communication. The words, the meaning, and the musical line all come across: "Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle / Sweeney would blink, and rats would scuttle."

Smooth or not, Todd is all revenge, anger, and despair. The work's other major character, Mrs. Lovett, is a counterpoint to him, with her cheerful, romantic nature (even while grinding up body parts for "The Best Pies in London"). Broadway star Judy Kaye is quite wonderful in the role, not to mention in her tuba solos.

Sweeney Todd (David Hess) and the Beadle (Benjamin Eakeley)

Photo by David Allen

There are a couple of impressively big voices in the cast: Benjamin Magnuson as Anthony (with a searing performance of "Johanna") and Diane DiMarzio as the Beggar Woman (also a whiz on the clarinet). Keith Buterbaugh's Judge Turpin provides a prime Broadway performance, and Edmund Bagnell's Tobias builds steadily to a splendid finale. Soprano Katrina Yaukey does an excellent job in the high tenor part originally assigned to Pirelli.

The lead soprano in the piece, Lauren Molina, has two major tasks — being and singing like an angel — but she did not deliver on the same level as the other cast members. Johanna, Todd's daughter, represents a glimmer of good in the work's hellish view of London, where "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit."

She has the weighty tasks of finding beauty in the midst of bestiality and making evil more human and understandable. Musically, that comes down to the difficult and central aria "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." As in two Richard Strauss works about ugly and destructive passions, Salome and Electra, the shock of sudden, unexpected, sweepingly beautiful music in the depths of "great black pits" is all-important. But in this case, communication of the text and the music was unsuccessful, so the balance was not fully established.

The other counterpoint, humor, came across extremely well, thanks to Kaye's singing and acting, particularly in the riotous "Little Priest" (with Hess' equal partnership), although "By the Sea" didin't come up to the Angela Lansbury gold standard. (Then again, Lansbury didn't have to play bells and percussion while singing.)

Still stunning was Sondheim's horrifying juxtaposition of hoped-for salvation from vengeance with the wiping out the wicked so that "For the rest of us death will be a relief ... We all deserve to die." It was a tough, complex show, well done.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].