Theater Reviews

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Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through April 6

It took awhile, but "Sweeney Todd" finally has made it to the madhouse where the show belongs.

A musical in which a demon barber and his gleeful accomplice turn customers into meatpies for others to munch on is not to be confused with "My Fair Lady," a show with a somewhat brighter view of London society. It's even possible that Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler had "My Fair Lady's" glossy exteriors and loverly score in mind when they crafted the decidedly darker and insistently ironic "Sweeney." (Is it merely a coincidence that "My Fair Lady" follows "Sweeney" to the Ahmanson next month?)

In John Doyle's much-admired restaging of this bloody masterpiece, the British director has placed the drama in an insane asylum, where the inmates are performing the macabre tale. Makes sense. If the world truly is a madhouse, as Sweeney (David Hess) believes and for good reason, then why not make a madhouse his world?

More importantly, Doyle's redesign extends to the music, where he has the cast doing double duty as actors and orchestra, most of them playing multiple instruments. The device lends an agreeable intimacy to the proceedings, not to mention a fair measure of humor. You can think of it as turning an opera into a piece of chamber music, though listening to Mrs. Lovett (Judy Kaye) urge sound out of a tuba is not to be confused with the Budapest String Quartet.

As regards the intimacy, the cavernous Ahmanson doesn't help matters, nor, in some important instances, does the casting in this national touring production. "Sweeney" demands a special kind of brilliance from the lead actor as it's largely the title character's burning passion for revenge that drives the show and illuminates Sondheim's biting lyrics. Although he sings well enough, Hess hasn't found a way to convey the crazed, embittered forces at play in the man.

While we're on the subject, the print ads for the show are puzzling if revealing. Hess, as Sweeney, is seen holding up to the light a straight razor blade and peering at it intently. But the image -- intended no doubt to suggest the demonic -- looks more like a concerned doctor examining the X-ray of a worm. Make of that what you will.

Kaye, so wonderful not long ago as the eccentric high-society opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins in "Souvenir," is bland in a different way. Her Mrs. Lovett has more the feel of a solid citizen than a slatternly shopkeeper, and the lower-class accent at times is nonexistent. Where's the bite?

The rest of the cast is serviceable, with Edmund Bagnell's pitiful Tobias making the strongest impression.

SWEENEY TODD
Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Ambassador Theatre Group, Adam Kenwright, Tulchin/Bartner/Bagert and Broadway Across America
Credits:
Music-lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Adapted by: Christopher Bond
Director/set designer: John Doyle
Lighting designer: Richard Jones
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Music supervision/orchestrations: Sarah Travis
Cast:
Mrs. Lovett: Judy Kaye
Sweeney Todd: David Hess
Tobias: Edmund Bagnell
Judge Turpin: Keith Buterbaugh
Beggar Woman: Diana DiMarzio
The Beadle: Benjamin Eakeley
Anthony: Benjamin Magnuson
Jonas Fogg: Steve McIntyre
Johanna: Lauren Molina
Pirelli: Katrina Yaukey
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