If it’s true that the musical is America’s most impactful (let’s avoid the word greatest in this context, shall we?) contribution to world theater, there’s one name atop the list of composers: Stephen Sondheim. He is one of those rare people who manifest in a certain craft or industry that are so innately gifted and prolific that everyone else, regardless of how talented or successful they might be, will always toil in their shadow. He is musical theater’s answer to Vin Scully and baseball announcing, Bruce Springsteen to a live rock concert, Donald Trump to incoherent, sputtering idiots—no one else even comes close.
Yet, while he’s praised, revered and adored, people don’t really like him. Relatively speaking. He’s never rolled out the cash cows à la Andrew Lloyd Webber. Other than Send In the Clowns, most normal people couldn’t hum a single Sondheim tune. His music, lyrics and subject matter can be so complex, rhythmically challenging and obtuse that they’re just too much for many a performer and audience member.
Maybe he’s less Springsteen than Steely Dan?
But it’s all incredibly smart and masterfully crafted work, so it’s no surprise that South Coast Repertory, a theater that has mostly avoided the musical genre for more than 50 years because, well, it’s the musical genre, is wheeling out its seventh Sondheim show—Sweeney Todd, lovingly subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street—and only its fourth “real” Sondheim piece (the other three were revues).
Fans of Sweeney won’t be disappointed by this production, as director Kent Nicholson has assembled a vigorous 11-member cast (a bit small for a show that, if budget allowed, could easily be doubled) graced with powerful and beautifully complementary voices that capture the goofy, low-brow vernacular of the poorer denizens of the rapidly industrializing 19th-century London streets, where the play takes place, and the twisted corridors ratcheting through the minds of the bloodthirsty, revenge-driven barber at its heart, as well as those caught up in his madness. (Special mention also to musical director David O and his team of nine musicians; no guitar, but there is a piccolo!)
One challenge that every Sweeney production faces is that the titular character isn’t much of a character. Sweeney is huge in his brooding and malevolence, but he’s entirely fueled by a simmering rage never too far from boiling, and there’s not much more to him. With his booming bass-baritone voice, David St. Louis is suitably intimidating and big; as with most Sweeneys, that’s all he is. But that’s enough, since this play is less about him and more about Mrs. Lovett (a suitably comical, but with more than a touch of conscience, Jamey Hood), the struggling pie-maker who alights upon a scheme that turns this from a Victorian penny dreadful blood-and-guts tale into a bizarre pitch-black comedy with more sliced throats than a shochet convention (look it up; I did).
Nicholson’s concept downplays an aspect that many productions embrace: original director Harold Prince’s vision of a London populace caught in the crosshairs of rapid industrialization and quickly losing their souls to furnaces and foundries. That London churns out products, using humans as its base working material, much as Sweeney’s characters churn out their human-inspired products. That is alluded to in this production by the character of Tobias Ragg (a riveting, scene-stealing Conlan Ledwith in a performance that’s supporting in name only), an emotionally and economically impoverished youth who endures the story’s most harrowing transformation. But Nicholson avoids obvious visual metaphors of ominous steel factories and sooty coal furnaces in favor of a more genuinely theatrical concept, ably executed by John Iacovelli’s scenic design and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting. Old-timey techniques such as painted backdrops sliding onto stage, drops falling from the ceiling, and lighting that at times elicits shadows as much as it illuminates make it all feel as if we’re watching a troupe of actors performing this show in a 19th-century theater.
And that makes this play drenched in murder, greed and vengeance feel more human than a conceptualized piece that attempts to inject a Big Idea kind of method into the madness. The main characters in this Sweeney Todd are less symbolic victims crushed and disfigured by a profit-driven industrializing society than they are willing—some far more so than others—actors in an abattoir of bloodletting. As one line repeated in the play suggests, the history of the world has always been who eats who; in this Sweeney Todd, as in all productions, the eaten finally get a chance to bite back. But this time, even if they wind up eating one another as much as biting the hands of their masters, they actually seem to like the taste.
Sweeney Todd at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 16. $26-$96.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???