Sunday, October 16, 2005

Notes from New York: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Patti LuPone is reprising her role as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd on Broadway. The staging is unique: there is no orchestra, per se. The cast is the orchestra, and they perform the brilliantly complex Sondheim score on stage as they are acting out the play. Cello, violin, piano, bass, clarinet, and even LaPone on the tuba – the entire cast remains on stage during the show playing, acting, singing.

The effect is unique and mesmerizing, I told the bellman at my hotel. He had asked me if the cast’s double-duty as orchestra “got in the way” of telling the story. On the contrary, I found the staging clever and involving, and I admire the cast for the spectacular results they achieved on stage. It is a fine production.

Sweeney Todd is the story of an 18th century barber wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison who returns to London fifteen years later to discover his wife dead and his daughter the ward of the unscrupulous judge who convicted him. Desiring a relationship with the daughter he never knew, he sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. But when Judge Turpin decides to wed his teenage ward in order to protect her from the evils of the world, Sweeney Todd descends into a murderous ire, dispatching his enemies with a straight razor.

And what does he do with the bodies? Let’s just say that Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies become famous all over London!

The show is dark and gruesome, yes, but it is also at times blisteringly funny and tender.

Returning home I discovered a flyer in the mail announcing Sweeney Todd was coming to Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. My wife was envious that I had seen the show in New York, which features two of Stephen Sondheim’s best and most memorable songs: “Pretty Women” and “Not While I’m Around.” My wife likes those two songs very much, and has never seen the show. So it looks like I’ll be seeing it again, and it will be interesting to compare the two.

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