Sweeney Todd: first preview

Ah Sweeney! Ah humanity! Brilliant. You could feel it in the air as you rounded the street corner and saw the crowd, the people lined up back to yonder. Abuzz: first night, first preview. The lights went down and the roar started, applause, applause, lifting us out of our seats. A small theater, intimate, immediate. Altogether like nothing I've seen before, a world re-imagined, stark and macabre, hyper-stylized and creeeeeepy. The actors (there are ten) are the musicians: when they're not singing, they play a variety of instruments. Difficult to imagine, but it works in an almost organic way, and what you lose with the natural majesty of the orchestra you gain with the clarity of the voices and lyrics. (Sidenote: Miss Patti on the tuba, orchestra bells, and percussion. And let me tell you, honey, you have not lived until you've seen Patti LuPone carting around a big ol' silver tuba onstage, shaking her fanny like nobody's business.)

The characters are patients in an insane asylum, reliving someone's monstrous nightmare. (Much ado about this treatment amongst the fanatic base: "Why mess with a classic?" as the old saw goes. Because one test of a classic is its malleabilty -- how far can it be stretched before it breaks? Can it be broken? I suppose it's possible, but I've seen three vastly different productions of Sweeney Todd, and each has succeeded in its own way. And whether this particular staging represents "reality" or functions as merely a framing device seems beside the point; it's no less effective as allegory. The story and the music are strong enough to warrant any number of interpretations, and in any event, the decision to present the action as the wild imaginings of a lunatic seems appropriate; is Sweeney ever anything other than madness? And aren't I just turning into the most pretentious ass?) Against the back wall hang costumes on hooks, and a 30-foot-tall shelf stacked with tchotchkes straight out of an olde English curiosity shop. No one leaves the stage; when they're killed, they don white hospital coats streaked with red and recollect their instruments. Pieces and props are passed back and forth, scenery is continually lifted and shifted, it's like a little Brechtian ballet. Buckets fill and refill with blood, the sound of blood spilling is amplified throughout the theater.

Michael Cerveris, bald head glaring ghoulish white beneath the spotlight, looks like a Charles Addams creation; his voice is both haunting and haunted. What can I say? He's a sexy man, and far more effective than I would have guessed. I think he can do anything. Patti comes on as a gothic Garbo in Anna Christie, all hangdog and world-weary, and morphs into a glittering, sinister Roxie Hart for Act II, glossy black wig, black eyes, bright red lips, black skirt up to there. Gone is the cartoonish busybody from her previous Sweeney outings; this is a head-to-toe reimagining, more overtly sexual and frankly predatory, and a little...sad. The things we do for love, I suppose, butchery and barbarism and baking and all that. Pity Patti. She is not an overwhelming force, though; she is equally fine at both horror and humor but fades easily into the background when she needs to. The voice is tamed to the space, which is important, because she has a tendency to go BIG on everything if allowed. There's power there, and goddamn if she isn't going to show it off. But again I digress... They are both menacing, feral, and deadly serious even when they're being wildly funny.

And with the orchestra stripped away, it's as if you are hearing the music for the first time: not something missing, but something revealed. Now almost thirty years old, it is new again, simplified and yet multiplied, magnified, completely reborn. The essence of the thing is split wide open and you have only this glorious, passionate, living...magic. I can't believe there's not some small amount of alchemy at play here, some devil's bargain made, because it is perfection.