Review: Stage Production of Sweeney Todd

You know when you see something and you can't decide if it's good or bad?

It has been two days since I saw the Broadway touring production of Sweeney Todd, and I still can't make up my mind. I'm guessing it was good; this is theater we're dealing with. This is art. And sometimes art seems to exist for no other reason than to make you feel like you're not worthy of understanding it. But that doesn't mean it's not good.

Sweeney Todd, for those of you not familiar, is a 19th century folk tale about a barber who goes apeshit and starts killing his clients. Why he does this, and what he does with the bodies when he's done, is all too complex to get into here. The story was eventually written into a Broadway musical - apparently Stephen Sondheim heard about a homicidal throat-slitting maniac, and thought I want to make that guy sing! - and that musical has now been written into a movie, starring Johnny Depp. So now the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is currently taking over America - but there is also this lesser-known stage version touring around the country, which just so happens to be at the Carnival Center in Miami this week. South Florida is being Sweeney Todded to an inch of its life.

The movie: bloody, gory, Johnny Depp playing a crazy guy is fun. The stage version? Much more complex. This is theater we're dealing with here. This is art.

The stage version unfolds as if it's a story being told by the inmates at an insane asylum, who participate by playing various characters and then fading into the back when not involved. But they're still busy: all the actors also play the musical instruments, taking the place of the orchestra. Is this a choice to create a more "intimate" experience for the audience? Is this to save money by not having to pay musicians? Whatever the reason, the effect is, well … Sweeney Todd was written by Steven Sondheim, one of the masters of modern Broadway theater, and his shows are written as big productions, with lavish musical scores and songs filled with complicated melodies. When you have a cast of ten people trying to sing AND play the violin/cello/clarinet, the effect is mush.

But this is theater, you say to yourself. This is art. And you put up with it.

It's impossible to not compare this stage version of Sweeney Todd against the Johnny Depp film, which is currently taking over every movie theater on Earth, but the two productions could not be more different. The film is a big-budget extravaganza, filled with exaggerated visuals of rivers of blood; the stage version is entirely minimalist, with no spurting blood, most of the props pantomimed, and the same set and backdrop through the entire show. Some say it’s high concept; some say the minimalism is … boring.

The film has a huge cast of celebrities playing wild caricatures (including a hysterical and too-brief appearance by Sasha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame); but the stage version is very bare-bones: picture actors bathed in bright white light, delivering their lines while staring in random directions instead of speaking to each other. Yeah, it's one of those shows. And then Sweeney starts running around the stage holding a white baby coffin that symbolizes something, but you're not sure what, and someone blows a whistle, and that means everyone is dead ... even though they're still on stage playing musical instruments. This is when the guy sitting behind you turns to his girlfriend and says "What the fuck is going on?" Shut up, man, this isn't some Hollywood blockbuster movie. This is theater. This is art. The only thing missing is the audience of people dressed in black turtlenecks, speaking with German accents, calling each other Dita.

On the flip side, the show is propelled by some brilliant performances: Judy Kaye, who plays Todd's partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, steals all of her scenes with a bright, cheeky, and deliciously droll star turn, making cannibalism seem fun. (Oops! I gave away some of the plot!) Benjamin Magnuson plays Anthony, the young lad in love with Todd's troubled daughter, and he has a gorgeous, lyrical voice that soars through the ups-and-downs of Sondheim's frenetic music. But with Magnuson, the show gets in the way of itself: he spends most of the show smothered under a cello in a corner, playing more of the orchestration instead of getting out on the stage to sing. Get the man front and center please, we want more of him.

The night we saw the show, there was an understudy in the role of Sweeney Todd himself: David Garray has a nice voice, but he tended to beat the audience over the head with his over-wrought acting, screaming his lines for no reason and stomping around the stage like a buffalo. Perhaps he was just nervous. And it's not fair to judge the show based on his performance. Although why in the world was there an understudy playing on opening night?

By the end, hordes of the audience had left early, grumbling about not being able to follow the story; this is partly due to not being able to hear correctly, as the Ziff was just too large a venue for the show, and the actor's words sounded garbled and muffled. Y'know, when it comes to theaters, Miami just can't win. But the audience that did make it through to the end? They gave a standing ovation. Apparently they appreciated true theater. They appreciated the art. I clapped along. Why?

I'm still not sure. -- Dan Renzi

Sweeney Todd is running at the Carnival Center through January 6. Call 305-949-6722 for more information.

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