Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Sweeney and Me

March 20, 2008

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo: DavidAllenStudio 2007

The Ahmanson Theater downtown is currently hosting the touring production of Sweeney Todd from John Doyle’s 2005 Broadway revival. Seeing it this week, three years after my exposure to the Broadway outing, was somewhat bittersweet and an interesting time to reflect on Doyle’s rise as a theater director on this side of the Atlantic. Since that original evening, which featured Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in what was a fresh, inventive and vital evening, I’ve had three other run-ins with Doyle’s work – the similarly staged revival of Sondheim’s Company on Broadway, LA Opera’s 2007 staging of Mahagonny, and more recently the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Peter Grimes. (Granted this last example was primarily through the live HD broadcast, but I will be taking in the full experience next week and think that the writing is already on the wall.) Given how weak both of the opera productions have been, it’s beginning to make Doyle look like a one-trick pony. I hope this isn't true, and this touring Todd came as a nice reminder of how forcefully Doyle stormed these shores in the first place. His take on Sondheim's masterpiece still has the same spark it did before. So how come Doyle no longer seems to know what to do with people who are singing on stage?

Sure, not everything in this touring production is quite as sharp as before. The whole white baby-sized coffin that Todd, Lucy, and Mrs. Lovett pass around at the climax now seems forced and overbearing. The performances aren’t bad and there are several holdovers from the Broadway cast including Benjamin Magnuson as Anthony and Lauren Molina as Johanna. In fact, virtually everyone in the current cast has been associated with either of Doyle's Sondheim adaptations as either a principal or an understudy. Judy Kaye takes on Mrs. Lovett here and, while she can be funny, I found her too broad and nowhere near menacing enough. David Hess plays the title role and can be foreboding at moments but is vocally weak at other key junctures. Of course, this is one of the great scores of the 20th century, so performance weaknesses are often easy to overlook and the general claustrophobic creep of the production can overtake some overly bright performances.

Besides the images of Doyle's recent stage disasters to contend with while enjoying this evening, there are other mental hurdles to overcome. I found myself also struggling to forget Tim Burton's tepid film version of Sweeney Todd from last year. The very weak vocal performances from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Cater were inescapable, creating a less than enthralling legacy for this work for a mass audience. I had to listen incessantly to the people seated behind me drone on about how much better Depp and the movie was throughout. Of course not everyone will agree with me, including Sondheim himself, who made an appearance in LA just days previously as part of the UCLA public performance series where he was featured in interview with columnist Frank Rich. Sondheim waxed poetic about his love for Burton's film and his distaste for the film version of West Side Story, which mostly had to do with his concern over the flow of the story. Go figure.

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