It’s no secret to regular readers of Curtain Calls and my blog that “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” ranks near (or, depending on which day it is, at) the top of my list of all-time favorite musicals. And the rather unique interpretation now in residence at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre is a fine example of why that is.
Unlike the original, straight-forward approach to the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical, director Adam John Hunter has recreated John Doyle’s 2004 revival that pared the cast to 10 – all of whom double as the orchestra. Yes, each actor plays one or more instruments throughout the show – with four actors seamlessly taking turns at the piano – and no one leaves the stage for more than a few seconds or minutes at any given time. The result is an impressively conceived and flawlessly executed production that – for once – actually deserved the standing ovation it received on opening night.
The story, based on an urban legend first propagated in a 19th century penny dreadful, follows the return of a barber to London after escaping 15 years of false imprisonment, only to find his wife dead and his daughter the ward (and future wife) of the judge who framed him. Bent on revenge, the now-renamed Sweeney Todd sets up shop above the bug-infested meat-pie shop owned by widow Nellie Lovett. Together, they formulate a plan that soon provides both plenty of ingredients for Lovett’s now-delicious pies and the means for Todd to enact his vengeance.
Unlike the excessively gory movie starring Johnny Depp, Doyle’s and Hunter’s “Sweeney Todd” is a highly stylized visualization set in the asylum where young Tobias Ragg finds himself after the horrifying events below Mrs. Lovett’s shop. The production is stripped to its bare essentials: There’s no barber chair, no slide down which the sliced bodies ride to the cellar, no oven – and no blood spurting about. Instead, a black, wooden casket serves multiple purposes, while plain chairs are moved about as needed. And the script has been slightly modified to accommodate the directors’ vision.
But what’s most impressive is how well Sondheim’s hauntingly beautiful, operatic score is served by the performers/musicians.
It’s difficult enough for most musical theater performers to SING Sondheim’s seductive, yet complex songs, but to have to learn to concurrently PLAY them on a variety of instruments – all the while remembering the dialog and stage blocking – is an immense task ripe for failure.
Yet Hunter’s talented cast shines throughout – even with the occasional vocal shortcomings on opening night.
Highlights include the pensive “Pretty Women,” during which the tension becomes palpable as Todd (Merritt David Janes) coyly toys with Judge Turpin (David Alan Marshall) in the barber chair. In another number, the cello playing by Wendy Muir (Johanna) and Duke Anderson (Anthony, the sailor who falls in love with her) artistically signals the rising sexual attraction between the two. Janes and Carrie Cimma (as a glam Mrs. Lovett) bring act one to a rousing finish with the delicious “A Little Priest,” while later, “Not While I’m Around” hints at things to come as Tobias (Chris Marchant) swears to protect Mrs. Lovett from all harm.
All technical elements of the production are first rate, but Paul Miller’s lighting design (based on the Broadway design by Richard G. Jones) is so intuitive and expressive that it could almost be considered the show’s 11th character.
‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’
Broadway in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday through Sunday through April 5. $30-$70. 313-872-1000. http://www.broadwayindetroit.com