Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"Sweeney Todd" is a very big show, big in terms of its musical and dramatic demands, big in physical production, big in the level of talent required for it to succeed, big in terms of its sophistication and reputation in Sondheim's oeuvre. Happily, this 5th Avenue Musical Theatre production, under the direction of David Armstrong and with musical direction by Ian Eisendrath, is also big -- a big, beautiful, thoroughly entertaining success. Excellent performances by Allen Fitzpatrick as Todd and Carol Swarbrick as Mrs. Lovett are well supported by the ensemble, and the evocative sets and lighting enhance the tone of macabre humor and genial madness. The music is exceptionally well-performed, the comedy is smartly paced and deftly accented, the horror grim and amoral, the relationships strong and clearly defined. This production does just about everything right, and it is as satisfying and fully-realized as anything I've seen at the 5th Avenue.
At the center of the show, of course, is the relationship between the unjustly imprisoned Sweeney, now released and sworn to revenge, and the gleefully practical Mrs. Lovett, with her ingenious use of the bodies of Todd's murder victims in her wildly popular meat pies. Allen Fitzpatrick has powerful presence and plenty of vocal authority for the role of Sweeney Todd. More interesting to me, however, was the subtle way in which the character developed from personal injury to moral blindness. What begins as an indifference to human life in response to his own victimization gradually transforms into a tragic obsession, a single-minded pursuit that leads to terrible catharsis and his own ironic doom. Mr. Fitzpatrick deftly blends the mundane with the larger than life, the most ordinary activity with extraordinary evil, and in doing so embodies some of the show's most important themes -- that life feeds on life, that society disposes of and consumes its unvalued members, and that the slightest gesture of dehumanizing others allows us to commit unspeakable atrocities.
Mrs. Lovett has a parallel but contrary arc, beginning as a woman with no interest beyond improving her struggling business, never blinking at the notion of using human flesh as an entree, and later, through her murderous liaison with Sweeney Todd, desiring a life of domestic tranquility, love and stability. In addition to her splendid enunciation and crystal-clear singing voice, Carol Swarbrick has perfect comic timing, and just the right proportion in her delivery. This is a role that is always in danger of being over-done, and this performance maintains perfect control, keeping things very funny, quite outrageous, but never ridiculous. Beyond that, she brings real warmth to the scenes where she is just a woman wanting to be with the man she loves, and sadly, sweetly realizing that his passion is focused in a larger, darker world. Todd and Mrs. Lovett are the heart and soul of this show, and these performances were rock-solid.
Of the excellent supporting cast, a stand-out performances is given by Ivan Hernandez as the young swain, Anthony Hope. He is a handsome actor with a beautiful singing voice, and the perfect companion to the lyric and lovely performance of Sarah Anne Lewis as Johanna. Another wonderful voice comes from the stooped rag-heap of a beggar woman, played by Leslie Law. Finally, Benjamin Schrader gives an excellent performance as Tobias Ragg, a castaway child who finds decency in the home of the homicidal couple. This is another carefully crafted and smartly nuanced performance. The remainder of the ensemble, each of whom is detailed and distinct, gives enthusiastic and vigorous life and vitality to the world of the play. Unfortunately, at least on opening night, the sound balance made the large ensemble numbers a bit muddy, and lyrics were often lost. Nonetheless, the tone and mood were clearly conveyed.
The overall credit for this fine achievement has to go to David Armstrong for his splendid stage direction, and to Ian Eisendrath for musical direction. First-rate on every count. The set by Eugene Lee is imposing and effective, and the lighting by Tom Sturge give every dark corner and threatening shadow its tinge of fear. Franne Lee costumed this large and varied cast with fine detail and overall balance.
I don't know how much of the decision to do this show around Halloween was intentional, thematically or commercially, but I really don't think it matters. This is a show that's relevant and disturbing at any time of year, and its cold-blooded humor and cynicism seem particularly trenchant in a time of brutal war against distant and indistinct threats. Stephen Sondheim always reminds us just how good the best has to be, and quietly makes most of the rest of contemporary musical theatre seem threadbare, derivative and shallow. As for this particular production, I think it's a fine argument for anyone needing to be convinced that the best of American regional theatre is as good as anything on Broadway. "Sweeney Todd" is a triumph.