Sunday, November 27, 2005

City on Fire

I attended the tale of Sweeney Todd Saturday night. Regular readers of this site may recall that I interviewed Michael Cerveris a few months back, but that was before the show had opened. (Actually, I spoke with him before he had even begun rehearsals.) So now that the show is a month into its run on Broadway, I figured it was a good time to get some tickets.

Sweeney Todd is one of my all-time favorite shows (it's up there with Rent, Chess and Into the Woods) partly because the first time I saw it, back when it was revived at the Circle in the Square theater in the late 1980s, it scared the bejesus out of me. (I was hearing the factory whistle for weeks.) No show had ever had a similar effect on me. Also, of course, it's because the show features some of Stephen Sondheim's best work ("Not While I'm Around," for example).

This new production is completely different from the earlier stagings. It all takes place in a mental institution, with the inmates acting out the story and playing the instruments too. There's no real set, just a large black coffin that is used as a prop, along with a ladder and some chairs. The cast wears variations on black and white — all the better to clash with the bold red color of the blood. And there's plenty of that too. I won't say exactly how the killings are represented, but it's not with a sliding barber chair; this new production leaves a lot to the imagination.

Some performances are better than others, and not surprisingly, Michael Cerveris is just awesome. He looks positively demonic, with pale white makeup covering his bald head, and he sings with a deep booming British accent that commands attention. You can't take your eyes off him. That is, whenever Patti LuPone isn't seeking the spotlight. With her awkward posing, too-tight clothing, and dead-on (pun intended) comic timing, not to mention her out-of-nowhere tuba playing, she's just classic. Also not surprising is the fact that the best scene in the whole show is "A Little Priest," the hysterical duet between Cerveris and LuPone that closes act one. You're looking at two of Broadway's best right there jousting for attention. It's really fun to watch.

Also worth noting is Manoel Felciano, who plays Tobias and alternates between psychotic looking inmate and youthful child throughout the show. He's the best of the supporting cast.

I know most of my readers don't live in New York, but if you should find yourself in the city and can appreciate (and afford) some theater, I highly recommend this revival. I don't think this Sweeney Todd is going to give me nightmares, but it will definitely live in my imagination for a long time to come.



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