Stephen Sondheim might best be described as the American musical theatre's greatest enigma. At the age of 77, he's been the recipient of countless awards (including seven Tonys, more than any other composer), and the New York Times called him "the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater." And yet, unfortunately, as a 2002 Smithsonian article rightfully stated, "Sondheim has never quite escaped the ghetto of cult enthusiasm....[he] has always been an acquired taste. He's never achieved the sort of popularity of Andrew Lloyd-Webber or had a megahit on the order of Cats."
Despite a rabid fan base among musical theatre insiders, most of Sondheim's artistically daring and harmonically challenging musicals -- Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George -- aren't often produced by community or even large-scale repertory theatres. Admittedly, I've been a musical theatre fan for nearly four decades, yet only in recent years have I seen many of Sondheim's works on stage for the first time. (And, like many other folks sitting in the audience, I bought a ticket based largely on the star-power of celebrities cast in the leading roles.)
However, perhaps no other work by Sondheim -- with the possible exception of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- is as accessible as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, launching its third national tour in an enormously appealing production at American Conservatory Theater.
This scaled-down Sweeney isn't the decadent, blood-soaked extravaganza which stunned Broadway in 1979. That production wasn't exactly a huge success. The show's producers never earned back their original $1 million investment, and it's rumored that half the opening night audience left in disgust at intermission. Still, that first legendary Sweeney, with its massive industrial sets and gargantuan orchestra and cast, ran for over 500 performances, earned nine Tony Awards (including a fourth for Angela Lansbury), and ushered in the era of the mega-musical.
So it's interesting that when British director John Doyle staged this celebrated revival on London's West End in 2004, subsequently transferring to Broadway the following season, he did it on a comparatively small if not miniscule scale -- without an orchestra, the actors themselves playing the score on stage. (I couldn't help but wonder how the legendary diva Patti LuPone reacted when she learned she'd be honking out a melody on a tuba.)
When the curtain rises on this odd and fascinating production, one is transported to a bleak, colorless world where the ghostly creatures who inhabit the minimalist set are less characters than storytellers. Doyle's direction is a brilliantly choreographed, highly stylized dance in which the players rarely speak directly to each other, their tattered costumes and gaunt features made even more haunting by designer Angelina Avallone's zombie-esque makeup.
Leading this marvelously talented cast of ten, David Hess delivers a deliciously dark and alluring performance in the title role. When Todd proclaims ownership over his barber's razor in the sweet ballad "My Friends," he might just as easily be singing a love song to a long-lost high school sweetheart. But make no mistake, his Sweeney is a cold-blooded murderer, singularly obsessed with revenge on the judge who sealed his fate, and that of his family's, 15 years earlier.
Judy Kaye steps confidently into what many consider the real leading role in the show: Mrs. Lovett, the murderous meat-pie maven and Todd's deceptively sweet partner-in-crime. Kaye is a positively luminous performer. From the moment she steps forward to musically express the sad state of her meat-pie business ("The Worst Pies in London") to a hilariously gruesome homage to cannibalism ("A Little Priest") and the quintessential Sondheim ballad ("Not While I'm Around"), Kaye has a palpable stage presence that commands an audience's attention.
Lauren Molina, as a bushy-haired, ethereal Johanna, and Edmund Bagnell as the blissfully off-kilter Tobias, are both theatrical triple-threats: extraordinarily skilled vocalists, string players and actors, while Keith Buterbaugh (Judge Turpin) and Benjamin Eakeley (The Beadle) also turn in fine performances as Sweeney's most delightfully deserving victims.
Pardon the inevitable yet completely appropriate pun, this Sweeney is a bloody good time and should prove to be one of the highlights of San Francisco's exciting fall theater season.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been extended through October 14, 2007. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.