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Sweeney Todd

Musical Theater That Revels in Horror, and Humor

There's no doubt, a growing sub-culture has emerged of musical theater fans who want to see complex orchestration, comedic flair, and macabre songs about the business endeavors of a butcher barber and pie maker working in cahoots. For them, “Sweeney Todd” is the pinnacle of all such productions, turning musical expectations of sweet love stories and comedic song and dance into the reality of a tale centered on the barbaric transgressions of the infamous “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” -- Sweeney Todd.

This is horror set to song with an edge of deep pathos and a toothsome humor that is both sharp and acerbic -- all sung along with a spritely, toe-tapping tune. Not only is this the musical that made lyricist Stephen Sondheim famous but “Sweeney Todd” also ultimately expanded the boundaries of musical theater. San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater is fortunate to be the first stop on the National Tour of director John Doyle’s interpretation of Sondheim’s play, an interpretation that Sondheim himself found “the closest to what [he] originally wanted to do.”

What makes this production, and this particular adaptation, so worth seeing is the way the play itself has morphed based on constraints, revealing a stage production that is economical in the use of its players while stretching and toying with the very limits of musical theater. Taking into consideration Doyle’s original re-imagining of “Sweeney Todd”, where his budget was limited, the performers were asked to do a bit more than any previous “Sweeney Todd” cast. The key here is the way the cast of ten filled the role of both performers and musicians -- acting, singing, even working as stage hands, while also producing the musical accompaniment.

This sort of performance means that the entire cast is always on stage. This aspect of the production creates a complex performance in itself, one where each player is so clearly essential in a performance’s success. Also, this changes the actual setting of “Sweeney Todd” -- within Doyle’s conception, the performance moves from a barber shop to somewhere between a pie shop and an insane asylum filled with inmates/performers garbed in bloody lab coats, teetering on the verge of reality, insanity, and the very edge of the stage.

“Sweeney Todd” relies on suggestion: the suggestion of blood, the suggestion of unspeakable horrors, and the sadness and humor of life where love and revenge are just short of one’s grasp. As Doyle says, “Everything must earn its place on stage.” And in this case, even the audience must work to bring this production together, imagining the gruesome acts, while attempting to perceive the potential of Sweeney Todd’s dark thoughts. Overall, this creates an experience between performers and audience that can only happen within a live theater setting.

With Doyle’s re-imagining, there is a mad frenzy of characters, performing with everything from a cello, to an accordion, to a triangle. And these performers are amazing; the transitions between songs is brilliantly seamless. One marvels at Lauren Molina’s Johanna, singing songs like “Kiss Me” so beautifully and with such humor then playing a supporting role with the cello. Really, all the performances are worth mention: Benjamin Magnuson as Anthony; Edmund Bagnell, with violin in hand, as Tobias; Benjamin Eakeley as The Beadle; and Katrina Yaukey as Pirelli, both taking turns at the piano.

But this is a story about Sweeney Todd and his baking buddy, Mrs. Lovett, who through some rather innovative thinking, goes from making “The Worst Pies in London” to pies what could only be considered, “a cannibal’s delight.” With David Hess as the dark brooding, leather-jacket garbed Todd, prowling the stage and fiercely performing songs such as, “The Barber and His Wife” and “Epiphany”, there’s no doubt that this Todd is capable of anything in the name of revenge. But Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett is the true revelation here -- conveying both Lovett’s desperate desire to be loved, and her upwardly mobile tendencies, Kaye plays Mrs. Lovett as playful, flirtatious, and completely unaware of just how vulnerable she really is.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Sweeney Todd” is an opportunity -- a chance to not only see the lovers of musical theater and the lovers of horror in one room, but also the opportunity to see ten performers, with multiple talents, pull off a superb ensemble performance.

Sweeney Todd
runs through September 30th
at American Conservatory Theater
tickets: $35-80