March 18, 1999
at the Ahmanson Theatre
Not to take anything away from the rest of his brilliant work, but Sweeney Todd may be composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim's most monumental achievement, with a vast, harsh, passionate score worthy of comparison to Berg's Lulu or Weill's Mahagonny as a 20th-century essential and lyrics of such razor precision and corrosive wit that they still the blood. To hear it rendered live is a rare and rich treat, as it was in last week's deeply satisfying "concert" performance under the baton of Larry Blank.
But the L.A.-based musical theatre revival series Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert doesn't settle for first-rate concertizing. With this high-profile celebrity Sweeney, Reprise! producer Marcia Seligson seemed bent on doing everything short of staging a full production, with a suggestion of a set (by David Sackeroff), a busy lighting design (by Tom Ruzika), snappy costumes (David R. Zyla), spry choreography (Kay Cole), and a director, Calvin Remsberg, putting his off-book cast through its paces in a fair approximation of the 1979 Harold Prince original (in which Remsberg appeared as the Beadle). Seligson's gamble paid off, even as it left us wanting more: We could practically taste the adrenaline pulsing through the game, talented ensemble as it pulled off this miraculous feat (with little more than a week of rehearsal), and throughout the evening we could glimpse the full staging as it might take shape had it been allowed to gestate. The result, if occasionally frustrating, was so much more than a concert, though less than a full show--a virtual Sweeney Todd.
Plaudits must begin and end with Blank and his musicians, who gave the score an awesome rendition, from its low tuba landings to its high Herrmann strings, from its Gothic organ to its burbling winds and rolling celeste (and that skin-crawlingly loud steam whistle). The show's ensemble, in a variety of small roles, gave the show's brutal chorales their full force, and filled out the crowd scenes admirably. (Credit Sheila Guthrie for the show's perfect casting.)
In the leading roles, the potential for greatness was as fully realized as could be expected. Kelsey Grammer had exactly the look and feel of Sweeney's avenging, obsessive black spirit, touched by a grim, mischievous humor; clearly, with more time, he would also have found a way to embody it and sing it with more ease and confidence. As the comically amoral Mrs. Lovett, Christine Baranski was an inspired if unlikely choice who lived up to it smashingly, sketching Lovett's petit bourgeois coarseness with anomalous panache and seamless timing.
As the ludicrously idealistic young lovers Johanna and Anthony, Dale Kristien and Davis Gaines were also an inspired choice, even with all their patented vocal ostentation. Neil Patrick Harris lacked the standout vocals for Toby's big number, but he, like Grammer, was well cast and might have blossomed in a full run. As the cartoonishly villainous Judge Turpin and his Beadle, respectively, Ken Howard and Roland Rusinek offered vocally adept sketches, while Scott Waara's Pirelli was appropriately show-stopping. Melissa Manchester was properly unhinged as the Beggar Woman, though she took centerstage a little too firmly for a character whose arc we're not supposed to notice until the final tragic ending.
And admittedly, what staging we did get was frustratingly, teasingly incomplete at key moments, most of them having to do with Sweeney's complicated, jury-rigged murderous barber chair, from which victims stole away sheepishly after getting their throats slit. But given that every line of Hugh Wheeler's dialogue and every lyric uttered had to be in the vicinity of one of the microphones stationed on booms all over the stage, it was a wonder how fluidly and fleetly Remsberg and Cole were able to keep things moving.
And these are, it must be stressed, quibbles with an undertaking that came off with surprising power and grace. It is a tribute to the ambition and success of this Reprise! enterprise that a critic could presume to review it as if it were a full production at all. Even as such, it surpassed most fully realized and rehearsed musical productions by a wide, bloody mile.
"Sweeney Todd," presented by Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. Mar. 12-14.