Sweeney Todd

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
A Watermill Theatre, Newbury production
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York

For Brits, theatrical exports to New York are always a pleasure. Whilst, as we might expect, the National Theatre tends to be a regular visitor, far more surprising is the success of the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire.

This 220 seat theatre has become a producing house that regularly transfers to the United States and indeed, Edward Hall's version of A Winter's Tale was playing at BAM at the same time as Sweeney Todd, giving the theatre two shows running in New York simultaneously. Towards the end of 2004, Hall's five-and-a-half hour adaptation of the Henry VI plays Rose Rage also played at a prestigious New York venue.

The greatest success so far though is John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, which, after playing at the Watermill and the Trafalgar Studios in the West End, in November 2005 started a residency at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway, a house that holds over 1,000 people a night. Judging by its success to date with tremendous reviews and picks of the year, it could well be destined to stay there for some time.

This is not a musical as Broadway understands the concept, which may be part of the reason for its success. Rather than a multi-million-pound extravaganza with fantastic light shows, a cast of thousands and a large orchestra, Sweeney Todd relies on nine multi-talented individuals on an appropriately drab set designed by the director.

The major concession to Broadway is the casting of one of their darlings, Patti LuPone, as piemaker Mrs Lovett opposite Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris in the title role.

The impact of Sweeney Todd rests on asking its cast members not only to act and sing but also to play all of the music themselves. Amusingly, not only does Miss LuPone provide a raunchy rendition of a wicked lady's life, she also plays not only the triangle and other percussion instruments but also a tuba.

Similarly, Cerveris gets opportunity to play the guitar, something that should be easy for a man who has just released his own indierock solo album and has played with Pete Townshend and The Breeders amongst others.

The tale of Sweeney Todd is infinitely dark - and occasionally remains so in this production as the storyline sometimes relies on prior knowledge. Following a great injustice that led to his transportation, this highly trained barber returns to 19th century London bearing a grudge.

Having established himself in his profession once again, he becomes friendly with his neighbour Mrs Lovett, the maker of the worst pies in the city, largely because of lack of appropriate fillings.

When Sweeney discovers that his beautiful daughter, Joanna, has become ward to Judge Turpin, the man that he believes was responsible for the death of his wife and his own transportation, he is driven to a murderous madness that not only feeds its own frenzy but also Mrs Lovett's customers. The deaths are signalled by the adornment of bloody white coats, possibly borrowed from the abattoir of Rose Rage!

At the same time, Joanna is keen to escape the Judge for life with a sailor, Anthony, who has also befriended the man who turns out to be her father. Unfortunately, Turpin will have none of this, as he has taken a shine to the young lady himself.

It would be nice to report that all live happily ever after but sadly that is not the case.

This is a classic tale that works best when Sondheim's music is at its edgiest, which is most of the time. Whilst a keyboard-piano played by several hands holds things together, it is the strings and particularly twin cellos that provide the most effective music.

Broadway debutants Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson as Joanna and Anthony demonstrate beautiful voices, particularly in the duet Kiss Me and also play the cellos more than competently.

The less lovable leads are given grit and colour by Patti LuPone and the shaven-headed Michael Cerveris but, in reality, Sweeney Todd works because it is an ensemble production in which each cast member plays his part.

This low-budget musical has what it takes to charm Broadway for a good time to come and it might not be a major surprise to see it returning to a larger West End theatre on the back of its successful American jaunt.

Sheila Connor reviewed the UK touring production with Jason Donovan

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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