I didn't see Eric Schaeffer's original production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" in 1990, so I can't say that with this new one he's done it again. But he's sure done it. His latest "Sweeney," which opened Monday at Signature Theatre, is a sizzler, its hottest spots being the grave, lowering characterization of the Demon Barber by Norm Lewis and the sensational performance of Donna Migliaccio as that mistress of homicidal cuisine, Mrs. Lovett.
Sent away for 15 years on a trumped-up charge, Sweeney Todd returns to London hoping to find alive the wife and infant daughter he left behind. He was sentenced in the first place because the corrupt Judge Turpin (Lawrence Redmond) fancied his pretty young wife, whom, once Sweeney was out of the way, he brutally seduced. The wife is nowhere to be found, and the daughter, Johanna (Jennifer Royall), who has grown up into a beautiful young woman, is the ward of the judge.
Maddened by suffering and intent on revenge, Sweeney is befriended by the widowed pie maker Mrs. Lovett. Soon the two are in business together, with Sweeney slitting the throats of customers he thinks won't be missed and Mrs. Lovett feeding them into the meat grinder as filling for her pies (and hard work it is, as Migliaccio lets us know, wearily but patiently dragging corpses around the cellar). For a time this odd pair achieves a stable parody of romantic companionship. But only until the plot starts tumbling to its ghastly conclusion.
As the murderous hero, arguably more sinned against than sinning, Schaeffer has cast the African American Broadway actor Lewis. At first glance, you think that Lewis's color is going to add some contemporary political acid to the tale, but the actor's brooding style suggests not modern American anger but the locked-in, melancholy evil of the 19th-century Gothic villain. He has tremendous quiet charisma, a powerful stillness.
Lewis's lower vocal range isn't quite up to the score, but his acting makes this slight shortcoming not matter. With his bruised-looking eyes and frightening inwardness, Lewis is a great Sweeney, and something innately gentle in him suggests the tragedy of destroyed goodness.
With her force-of-nature presence and big gorgeous voice, Migliaccio is an extraordinary Mrs. Lovett. This immense performance is uncannily delicate--far from being a camp monster, Migliaccio's Mrs. L has a shy hopefulness that's surprisingly touching. Practical, lusty and essentially optimistic, Sweeney's landlady is, for all her grotesquerie, a life-loving creature. And one of the most shivery elements in this extremely shivery production is the way this vibrant villainess falls in love with, in the person of the darkness-seeking Sweeney, death.
This strange, terrible romanticism is at the heart of Schaeffer's production as well as the show itself. Instead of playing into the score's acrid tendencies, music director Jon Kalbfleisch has pulled a full-bodied, almost warm tone from Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, and the result is a tension between longing and bitterness. Schaeffer writhes his ranks of ragged Londoners in serpentine patterns that are almost pretty, and when he stages Judge Turpin's prayer and self-flagellation, designer Daniel MacLean Wagner lights the scene like something from one of Caravaggio's anguished religious canvases. The production twists on an axis between ghastly comedy and spookily serene beauty--it's dizzying, it's sickening, it's transporting.
Lou Stancari's decrepit-looking set, multileveled and many-doored, depicts London as a maze for its ratlike denizens. Costumer Anne Kennedy is at both her scruffy and elegant best. The actor-singers are all excellent; special mention must be made of Dana Krueger as the horrid, sweet-voiced Beggar Woman; Michael Sharp as the innocent, doomed servant Tobias; and Redmond, who, no stranger to villains, nonetheless reaches new levels of pitiableness and threat as the judge.
"Sweeney Todd" was a tale first told in the pages of an 1840s "penny dreadful," a bloodcurdling, stomach-churning urban legend that aimed to do nothing but thrill, and thrill cheaply. By the time Sweeney's adventures reached the Broadway stage--with music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, direction by Harold Prince--they had been politicized as some sort of left-wing fable about the mistreated poor and their vengeance on the evil rich. The gibbering, politically in-your-face "Marat/Sade" was as much a source for the musical as the original potboiler.
On Broadway the show, essentially a chamber opera, took place on the gigantic stage of the Uris Theatre in front of a huge backdrop depicting the oppressive social structure of "The English Beehive." The Signature production is less pretentious. Schaeffer isn't afraid of bad taste; he doesn't need to trick up the story's vulgarity with good intentions. The political lines are there, but they're swamped, as they always were despite Prince's best efforts, by the tide of blood, gore and perversion that surge through the material.
Schaeffer has remembered that, for all their highbrow reputation, most of the great operas have plots that are ridiculously lurid, and he trusts Sondheim's brilliantly detached score--a cold, complex and beautiful work that purifies the story's gruesome excesses and sets them resonating like struck crystal. The grisly details titillate, the unsparing music chills and the whole production, like an opera, finds the emotional truth at the core of the overwrought and the tawdry.
Sweeney Todd, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Sound, David Maddox; props, Avery Burns. With Chad Kimball, Jimmy Smagula, John J. Kaczynski, Buzz Mauro, Philip Bender, Jean Cantrell, Ilona Dulaski, Rodney Hussey, Liz Isbell, Tracy Olivera, R. Scott Thompson, Timothy C. Tourbin, Daniel Felton, Rebecca Nacht. At the Signature Theatre through Oct. 31. Call 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Donna Migliaccio and Norm Lewis.
CAPTION: Norm Lewis as the deadly barber and Lawrence Redmond as the dastardly judge.