The nonpareil label Nonesuch has released the cast album of Sweeney Todd, from the savagely spare Broadway production now at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. You can practically smell the bitter fumes rising from the speakers – a combination of bloodlust, Brecht and Berlin cabaret. I’m not completely convinced by the production, which accentuates the show’s nastiness and glosses over its snarling charm. Michael Cerveris, he of the curled lip and glowing pate, does not rely on charm or elicit much sympathy as Sweeney, so we’re left with a protagonist who on top of being a serial killer is also an unpleasant man. Patti LuPone plays Mrs. Lovett the only way she knows how, as a cockney Patti LuPone. The standout in the cast is the astonishing Manoel Felciano, whose damaged, blinking, straitjacketed Tobias haunted me all night after I saw the show.
Visually, this incarnation of Sweeney is blistering in its simplicity. The only set is a tower of Victorian tchotchkes. The principal props are a collection of ferociously glistering razors and a cheap black coffin. (It’s about death, dontcha know.) The cast sings straight out past the proscenium. Hardly anyone makes eye contact with anyone else. Musically, it’s more rusty bread knife than tempered razor. With the exception of Cerveris, the cast accompanies itself. Judge Turpin plays the trumpet, Pirelli squeezes the accordion, Tobias strokes the violin. Even LuPone clinks a triangle and blows a few notes on the tuba, which sounds like a natural extension of the pawn-shop flugelhorn in her throat.
In the theater, the sheer thrill of watching the multi-skilled cast at work lasts most of the evening. Get the same crew in a recording studio, though, and they have to make the music work on its own merits, which it does. A few years ago, the New York Philharmonic showed that Sweeney could take a high-gloss symphonic treatment without losing its sharpened edge. This version produces the opposite: a minimalist wheezefest of wobbly tremolos, vamping bass riffs, and biting dissonances. It’s a tribute to Sondheim that his score works equally well at such extremes of scale.
- Justin Davidson
JDavidson8 at nyc.rr.com