Sweeney Todd, that dark, cunning musical adapted by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, is the kind of work that should play, somewhere, every year around Halloween, not unlike The Sound of Music’s emergence as an Easter television perennial. The show, with its twisted and twisting themes of blood lust, love, vengeance and survival, happens to have one of the most haunting scores in musical history.
West End theatergoers won’t have the privilege to go trick-or-treating this All Hallow’s Eve at the Adelphi Theatre, where the latest Sweeney revival has been playing, however; the show has announced a late September closing. But this adaptation, directed in a busily unfocused fashion by Jonathan Kent, deserves to have more of a life beyond its current run, if for no other reason than the transcendent performance of its star, Imelda Staunton, as the daftly mercenary Mrs. Lovett.
Kent has updated the show’s industrial era setting to a bleak pre-war 1930s London, but either way, the theme is the same. It’s a hard world out there and everyone is out for themselves, even Sweeney himself (an intense Michael Ball), a barber once known as Benjamin Barker who was wrongly sentenced to prison and who lost his wife while away. When he sets to kill not just those complicit in his exile, but, well, everyone, it’s Mrs. Lovett, the pie maker whose store plays host to his barbershop full of barbarism, who suggests a ghoulishly resourceful way to dispose of the evidence.
And Staunton devours her stage time, connecting myriad dots between humor, heartache, capitalistic and crazy. (Her rendition of the tricky first-act classic closer, “A Little Priest,” couldn’t be more nimble or entertaining The tiniest intonations and gestures in her scenes with Ball and James McConville as Tobias, a surrogate son of sorts, are particularly illuminative. It’s a definitive interpretation of a canonical role, which makes one hope that we get to see her portrayal stateside. It’s also, unfortunately, a performance that at times gets obscured by Kent’s fussy production, a Grand Guignol mosaic whose many pieces often distract from the overall picture. A scene set in a Victorian insane asylum feels loosey-goosey when it should be clipped and help escalate the darkly humorous show on its way to a climax. And as Joanna, the closest thing this work has to a true heroine, Lucy May Barker feels miscast in a role that doesn’t amplify her musical strong suits.
Other performers, however, including John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou, also offer excellent interpretations, and the ensemble is well-served by Paul Groothius’ sound work and Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical direction. Anthony Ward’s bleak costumes and sets also complete this warped stage picture. Ultimately, Sweeney is a pitch black metaphor for survival – which this production, warts and all, does. But it deserves another forum in which it can truly thrive.
Adelphi Theatre, London. Thru Sept. 22. http://sweeneytoddwestend.com/
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