Judge Bryan Pope challenges you to say "Sweeny Todd" five times fast. Okay, so it isn't that challenging...sure sounds funny, though.
Our reviews of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (published May 3rd, 2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (Blu-Ray) (published October 21st, 2008), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street: 2-Disc Special Edition (published April 1st, 2008) are also available.
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
"Sweeney Todd," Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim's Tony-winning 1979 musical, received the concert treatment in 2001. The concert is now available on DVD courtesy of Image Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
In Victorian London, barber Benjamin Barker is unjustly sent to an Australian prison by the corrupt Judge Turpin, leaving a wife and infant daughter, Johanna, behind. Fifteen years later, he escapes and returns home only to learn that his wife was driven to suicide by Turpin and that Turpin is now Johanna's charge. With neighborly meat pie maker Nellie Lovett as his accomplice, Barker changes his name to Sweeney Todd, brandishes his old razor and sets out for bloody revenge against the judge.
The tale of the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" was originally popularized by the Victorian-era pulp fiction rags known as "penny dreadfuls." However, despite various stage and screen incarnations, the story didn't really enter American consciousness until Sondheim, playwright Hugh Wheeler, and producer/director Harold Prince took a stab (sorry) at it. In crafting their version, Sondheim and Wheeler were inspired primarily by Liverpool playwright Christopher Bond, whose rendition fleshed out Todd by providing some motivation for his acts of murder. The result was a Grand Guignol operetta chock full of hissable villains, throat slashings, and narrow escapes, but also a commentary on the inherent evil of society. This Sweeney, the play insists, is both a victim and a product of the Victorian caste system. More chillingly, it suggests that many more Sweeneys are out there, and if that doesn't make your blood run cold, check your pulse.
I've always thought Sondheim's take on this Victorian horror story would make a spiffy radio thriller. His masterful libretto makes costumes, sets, props, and even movement practically unnecessary. Add a few well-placed sound effects (a factory whistle, creaky oven door, and the sound of corpses sliding down into Mrs. Lovett's kitchen, for starters), and you're good to go. Having watched Sweeney Todd in Concert, I'm more convinced of this than ever.
That's not to say that this concert doesn't stand on its own as a piece of live theater. In fact, thanks to director Lonny Price's theatrical sensibility and some polished editing, it works exceptionally well. Price, who is no stranger to Sondheim's work (he was one of the leads in the original Broadway production of Sondheim's criminally underrated "Merrily We Roll Along"), provides enough visual flourishes to point our imaginations in the right direction, and then he leaves the rest to us. The original production had an elaborate multi-tiered set that would be difficult to recreate in a concert venue, but Price's simple set design is an elegant and practical substitute. The actors eschew Victorian costumes in favor of contemporary concert duds that have enough embellishments to suggest who the characters are, and they use props sparingly. You might say this is theater in its purest form.
Price also receives points for including Judge Turpin's "Johanna," a song that was cut from the original production because it was deemed too dangerous for the show. During this number, Turpin spies on Johanna through a keyhole while flagellating himself into a guilt-induced frenzy. It's a disturbing moment in the show that makes the judge a much more reprehensible villain.
Price has assembled a mostly marvelous cast that makes this Judge almost forget about the 1982 filmed stage play. In the title role, stage great George Hearne makes a menacing yet sympathetic antihero. He may not have originated the role (that honor belongs to Sondheim regular Len Cariou), but he's played it enough to be able to lay claim to it. Viewers will also recognize Doogie Howser himself, Neil Patrick Harris, in a secondary (but significant) role. Harris is making a name for himself in musical theater (most recently in the Broadway debut of Sondheim's "Assassins"), and he's terrific here. Broadway favorite Patti Lupone fills Mrs. Lovett's shoes with mixed results, but more on her in a moment.
Sweeney Todd in Concert was originally broadcast on Halloween night of 2001. It's shown here in its original full-frame presentation, and it shines. The picture is crisp and impeccable, with bold colors, true blacks, and good flesh tones. Audio options are DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. I listened to the 5.1 Surround, and it exceeded my wildest expectations. The lush orchestrations were rich, bold, and crystal clear, and the rear speakers were used to fine effect, especially during the large choral numbers. Next time I want to listen to "Sweeney Todd," I imagine I'll pull out this DVD instead of my CD. Yes, it's that good. Subtitles are not provided.
The package includes extensive production notes from Price and "The Making of Sweeney Todd in Concert," an informative, 25-minute program featuring remarks from Sondheim, Price, and most of the cast. Neither expounds on the origins of the English folk tale, but both are nice inclusions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lupone is a major stage talent. Unfortunately, she's also a force of nature, and this works against her characterization of Mrs. Lovett. The role requires a deft comic touch with just the slightest hint of insanity, vulnerability, and danger, but Lupone starts off aiming for the fence and delivers a performance that is too broad for television. If she doesn't inhabit the role the way Angela Lansbury did in the original production, at least she settles into it by the end of the first act and acquits herself nicely in the second, especially during her "Not While I'm Around" duet with Harris.
Also, the minimal sets and staging work most of the time, but not always. For example, without the full sets, props, and sound effects, the throat slittings and Mrs. Lovett's fate lose much of their horror and impact.
To write this show off as an inferior production of "Sweeney Todd" simply because of its concert venue would be a mistake. Price turns the concert-hall trappings into a major asset, resulting in a night of exciting, inventive, and imaginative theater. For around $25, you can't go wrong.
Sweeney Todd in Concert is cleared of all charges, but the court asks Mr. Todd to kindly step away from the cutlery.
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• "Making of Sweeney Todd" Featurette
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