AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
from an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by John Doyle
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Geary Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

John Doyle's pared-down version of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, "Sweeney Todd," has been earning accolades ever since it originated in England and went on to a Broadway opening in November 2005. With only 10 performers, who also serve as the orchestra by playing one or more instrument, it's a far cry from the brilliant Hal Prince production that opened on Broadway in 1979 with a book by Hugh Wheeler. Nevertheless, its sheer audacity and creativity show why it has been successful. Now American Conservatory Theater is presenting a production that is embarking upon a national tour.

Composer-lyricist Sondheim wrote "Sweeney Todd" for a much larger orchestra, so musical supervisor Sarah Travis has had to write new orchestrations. Sondheim also has made some changes, most notably in "God, That's Good!" which opens the second act. Overall, though, the familiar score is intact and, for the most part, is rendered well by the singer-instrumentalists.

Director Doyle, who also designed the set and costumes, sets it in one large room, presumably an insane asylum, where the two main set pieces are floor-to-ceiling shelving upstage and a black coffin that is moved, disassembled and rearranged throughout the show. There's no conductor (David Loud is music director), but Katrina Yaukey, who plays the usually male role of Pirelli and who also seems to be a doctor, appears to give most of the cues as she plays the accordion, keyboard or flute.

This production features David Hess in the title role. He does well, but needs to be more deranged at times. His co-star is Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett. Though she's younger and more earthy than Angela Lansbury, who unforgettably originated the role, her comic timing and singing are terrific. She earns lots of laughs as she nonchalantly cleans various tools of butchery (hack saw, drill, cleaver and others) while singing the light-hearted "By the Sea." The young lovers are played by Benjamin Magnuson as Anthony and Lauren Molina as Johanna. Both also play the cello. Molina does well with Johanna's coloratura, but Magnuson seems too tentative, both vocally and dramatically.

Strong performances come from Diana DiMarzio as the Beggar Woman and Edmund Bagnell as Tobias. Also noteworthy are Keith Buterbaugh as Judge Turpin and Benjamin Eakeley as the Beadle. John Arbo has only a few lines as Jonas Fogg. Otherwise, he plays the bass and sings with the chorus.

Despite the creativity evidenced in Doyle's production, it lacks some of the power and emotional connection of larger productions, and the constant shifting of actors and the coffin can be distracting. Still, the lighting by Richard G. Jones helps keep the audience focused. The sound by Dan Moses Schreier is noteworthy for its subtle miking of the performers and its occasional eerie effects.

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