The excellent touring production of director John Doyle’s radical rethinking of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was on Tuesday an absorbing, often exciting experience from Row H.
What this intimate show looked like from the balcony of the Music Hall, I can only guess. But from where your inexhaustible theater critic sat, this was mighty fine entertainment.
Don’t expect the blood spigots of Tim Burton’s movie. This show is highly theatrical in the best sense of the word. It reminds us that theater, after all, is an elaborate game of make-believe for grownups.
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are some of his best and his quasi-operatic score is reduced to spare but effective arrangements performed onstage by the actors. The small ensemble of cellos, woodwinds, light percussion instruments and keyboards combined with a trumpet, a violin, an accordion and a tuba captures all the humor, anguish and macabre atmosphere of Sondheim’s haunting music.
Doyle exercises a clever conceit by setting the show in an asylum so that, in effect, we’re watching “Sweeney Todd” enacted by the inmates. Ships, shops, streets and the interiors of houses are all suggested by simple rearrangements of stage properties, including a step ladder. The performers rarely leave the stage because when they aren’t acting, they’re playing their instruments.
Sondheim, working with Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book, basically takes a Victorian pulp story and presents it as a black comedy that transcends the material to become an inspired work of art. Sweeney Todd, played by the imposing David Hess, returns to London after 15 years in a penal colony and seeks revenge against those who destroyed his family and his life. He also happens to be an effective serial killer — razors being his preferred tool —— and when he teams up with Mrs. Lovett (the excellent Judy Kaye), they become quite the symbiotic couple. He slashes throats in his barber chair and she uses the remains to fill the pies she sells in her shop.
Sweeney, though, is a haunted man who seeks to liberate his daughter, who has been raised by the libidinous, venal Judge Turpin. Indeed, he shows us that even sociopaths have tender hearts when he thinks of his daughter. Hess is tall and charismatic and finds a way to charm us even as he puts off repellant killer vibes. It’s possible to sympathize with Sweeney up to a point, but he’s a not a remorseful guy.
Kaye delivers a bravura performance as Mrs. Lovett, tapping into the role’s outrageous comic qualities while never over-doing it. She, Hess and many of the supporting players are veterans of the Broadway production. As you might expect, their work is flawless.
This show works its way under the viewer’s skin. It shows us once again that sometimes melodrama is the most effective vehicle to capture basic truths about the human condition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after the final curtain call.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs through Sunday at Music Hall. Tickets: $25-$61; 816-931-3330; ticketmaster.com.