Theater review of 'Sweeney Todd' at Signature Theater
By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
It takes far too long to happen, but eventually Signature Theatre's "Sweeney Todd" -- the company's third stab at the blood-soaked saga in its 20 years -- captures the threat and thrill of this great Stephen Sondheim show. The music grows haunting, the story breaks the heart, and when it all finally snaps together you might think along the lines of the demon barber himself: "At last!"
You wouldn't bet on that kind of payoff based on the stupefying, lifeless first act, which finds the acclaimed Shirlington troupe in the same dreary gear that plagued last fall's grubbied-up "Show Boat." Here director Eric Schaeffer drapes grimy fabric above the audience -- the huge sheets look like soot-blackened snow, until a trick of light reveals them to be bloodstained -- and for more than an hour the design's vision of Industrial Age London as junkyard squalor lies on the show like a dirty blanket.
That's all very well, of course, if you don't mind overstating the obvious bottom line of this morality tale, in which a wronged man's thirst for vengeance leads to serial murder and, not coincidentally, to the best meat pies in London. But the early emphasis on dour atmosphere sucks all the glee out of one of the wittiest, wickedest musicals ever penned, and the performance almost never recovers.
One by one, the comic songs of the long first act die without a fight. Sherri L. Edelen makes a plucky Mrs. Lovett, the indomitable entrepreneur who recognizes the grim-faced Todd the instant he returns from an Australian prison sentence (please recall that a nasty judge raped Todd's wife, stole his daughter and sent him away), but she can't get a rise out of the joke-filled "The Worst Pies in London." Schaeffer's staging prods no laughs from the broad mountebank shtick with the tonsorial fraud Pirelli, and vocally, Michael Bunce isn't all the way up to the mock operatics of the brief but showy role.
Nor, for that matter, is Edward Gero as the vocally imposing Todd. Gero is one of Washington's finest actors, but while he can hit the role's notes, he can't do much with them. So where, you quickly wonder, will this masterful musical's big moments come from? Even the orchestra is a handicap: Where Signature has typically employed a dozen or more instrumentalists, this score is played by four musicians. (Times is hard, as Mrs. Lovett laments; the upside is that the quartet handles Zak Sandler's thin but savvy orchestrations superbly.)
Yet somehow this misguided ship begins to turn around with the indestructible black comedy of "A Little Priest," in which Gero and Edelen warm up to each other as the cannibalistic business plan takes shape. And then a lot of the second act's success has to do with Edelen, whose Lovett becomes a gloriously intriguing (and sturdily sung) tangle of empathy and opportunism. Edelen amusingly mines friskiness and frustration crooning "By the Sea" to Gero's grumpy Todd, and expertly limns maternal concern with selfish panic during "Not While I'm Around." She practically takes the show by the back of the neck and makes it shape up.
Sam Ludwig does magnetic work, too, as Tobias, the urchin left behind when Pirelli becomes Todd's first victim (and Lovett's first culinary experiment). Ludwig's blend of naivete and awareness is perfect, and he helps drive the show to a fine black comic pitch echoing the "Parlour Songs" sung by Lovett and the thuggish Beadle Bamford (Chris Sizemore, emerging at last from behind round sunglasses to become more than a sinister caricature).
So it works in the end, yet that ragged first act will nag fans -- and they are legion -- who believe "Sweeney Todd" is as good as American musicals get. Industrial thunder rumbles in the sound design and body bags drop from the rafters, and it's annoying that such attention has been paid to cheap theatrics, rather than to consistently playing this rare, powerful material within an inch of its life.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Scenic design, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Chris Lee; sound design, Matt Rowe; musical direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. Wit Jean Cantrell, Matt Conner, Erin Driscoll, Sean Maurice Lynch, Gregory Maheu, Kevin McAllister, Katie McManus, Channez McQuay, Chris Mueller, Russell Sunday, Chris Van Cleave, Hannah Willman and Weslie Woodley. About two hours and 45 minutes.