April 9th, 2008 5:33 pm | by BEN WATERHOUSE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Multnomah County

Live Review: Sweeney Todd

Mrs. LovettIf I were to pick one critique of Tim Burton's stunning and shamelessly indulgent screen adaptation of Sondheim's transcendent slasher-flick musical, it would be that Burton lacks anything resembling restraint. Sure, his art direction is masterful, and the acting (if not necessarily the singing) is excellent throughout, but Burton's bloodthirsty insistence on spraying the set with gore at every opportunity detracts from the essential beauty of Sondheim's work. It's cheap spectacle, and it adds little to the film after the first dozen corpses slide down Sweeney's chute.

Director John Doyle took the opposite approach with his 2004 revival, the touring production of which is playing at Keller Auditorium through Sunday, April 13. The show attracted attention (and a pair of Tonys) mostly for forcing its cast of ten to pull double duty as the orchestra, lugging a couple dozen instruments on stage and playing the score in addition to all that singing and acting. The sight of Patty Lupone toting a Tuba was too good to miss. But not everyone was pleased: some fervent Sondheim fans I know consider it a cheap shortcut, a cynical ploy to save money under the guise of theatrical innovation. I disagree. The on-stage instrument stunt (which must drive casting directors batty) actually serves the show, and not only by focusing the audience's attention on the music. The musical assignments work quite well with the actors' roles. Johanna and Anthony both play cellos, and Toby uses his violin as a handy, childish prop.

But what really stands out about Doyle's production is its restraint. The modern dress and lack of explicit violence may turn of the adolescent crowds who filled theaters for Burton's gore-fest, but it gives the cast a lot more room for subtle interaction. It's hard to do much small-scale acting when you're busy splashing the first two rows with ketchup. Indeed, the only blood that's spilled on stage in Doyle's show is poured from bucket to bucket. All the murders are stylized, with a slash through the air, a wash of red light and a shrill whistle from the flutist (Katrina Yaukey).

David Hess' performance as Sweeney compliments the scaled-down staging. He plays the demonic barber less as an out-of-control psychotic and more as a man who is very tired. All he wants is to slice up Judge Turpin and retire. He looks nothing like Depp's kooky Todd, with his shock of white hair and twitchy demeanor. Dressed in plain work clothes and a mid-length jacket, he looks more like a science teacher than a killer. It makes him all the more terrifying. Judy Kaye, who took over the role of Mrs. Lovett from Patti LuPone in the Broadway production, is also very, very good. She's got a tremendous voice, and blends matter-of-fact practicality with occasional flashes of diabolical glee. Her delivery of "By the Sea," which she sings while cleaning a bucket full of frightening tools for dismembering Sweeney's victims, is both chilling and hilarious.

The one worry I have about this show at Keller auditorium is one of scale. The production is small, shrinking Keller's mammoth stage to about a third its usual size and bringing the proscenium with it, and the auditorium is very, very large. While I had no complaints from row H, I wonder if the set might be lost altogether to the poor souls in the second balcony. If you've got the cheap seats, you might want to bring binoculars.

But I run on. The show's great, even if you have to watch it through a telescope. Do attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. Unless you're a gore-loving kid with a septum piercing and a chain-heavy black denim Hot Topic ensemble. If it's blood you're after, see GWAR instead.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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