Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sweeney Todd - The National Tour in Atlanta

John Doyle's reconceptualization of SWEENEY TODD has reached Atlanta, playing at the GINORMOUS Fox Theatre in Atlanta, before continuing on to its last two stops in Houston and Denver. Though with a capacity over 4,700 seats, the Fox closed off the side sections and probably the upper balcony, though I did not look to check on that. My seat was N-78, which was a bit further back than preferred, but provided exceptional sight lines. The sound design was fairly well adjusted for the size of the space, though the set was dwarfed by the immensity of the Fox itself.

The reputation and discussion of Doyle's production precedes it, so before going into that, my biggest surprise and delight was the performance of Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett. She was a revelation! With a mixture of Merman-esque brass, charm and a coloratura control, Ms. Kaye didn't waste a syllable or moment. This was the first performance of Lovett that I have witnessed in which an actual character arc was effectively played out. "A Little Priest" is as much a musical hall number as it is her seductive brainstorm into Sweeney's psyche. In what could be considered Lovett's big numbers ("Worst Pies in London", "A Little Priest", "By The Sea" and the "Final Sequence"), her emotional journey into seduction, love, disillusionment and finally, fear, are performed with laser like precision. It was Ms. Kaye which truly blew me away in this production!

Playing opposite her is David Hess as Sweeney Todd. He gives what is the most traditional performance and aspect of the production. Perhaps the motives are fairly, bluntly voiced in the book and lyrics, leaving little room for variant interpretations. However, Hess does give an exceptionally vocally violent rendition of "Epiphany", in which his sacrificing of tone is spine tingling in its anti-tonalism.

Edmund Bagnell plays Tobias, which has become the start and center of John Doyle's reinterpretation of the play. It is Tobias' story being told from an asylum, ala "MARAT/SADE". Throughout the play, he is the only character who is involved even when he is at the side playing his violin. In casting the character as story teller and on violin, he is also something of the concertmaster for the on-stage orchestra. Bagnell is INTENSELY involved in observing everything happening on stage, almost scene stealingly so. He may also have been a bit intimidated by the size of the house, as I sensed a bit of overplaying to the back.

Two other character reinventions are Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, played by Keith Buterbaugh and Benjamin Eakeley, respectively. They are both strikingly handsome performers, which is playing against type. However, this adds a surprising depth of hypocrisy to the roles. In fact, as a crucifix is spotlighted on the wall whenever Turpin sings, and the reinclusion of "Mea Culpa", Turpin becomes a Jimmy Swaggart character - wealth, charm and beauty, yet evil. Beadle is his suitably, stylishly dressed "henchman", played with mafia-like verve.

The final reinvention is Pirelli, who is played by a woman, Katrina Yaukey. Interestingly enough, it is vocally perfect for the soprano. I am not exactly certain why a the role was cast like this, except that with the elimination of a chorus, there needed to be another soprano cast.

The roles of Johanna, Anthony and Beggar Woman, and Jonas Fogg who is not usually credited as a principal, are all traditionally performed. Well, except for the addition of the instruments. And here is where John Doyle's production has gained such notoriety - his integration of orchestra and cast. I do not know what the inspiration for such a move was, but to downsize what is usually an enormous undertaking (10 principals, minimum chorus of 12, 18 orchestra) to just 10 total performers seems nearly insane! Yet, he does it and quite successfully. There are a couple of awkward blocking moments, as the attempts at Brechtian out fronts can lose an upstage performer in the sight lines (particularly Anthony's first verse of "Johanna") and climbing around the centerpiece coffin is a bit awkward, also. The inclusion of the instruments and chairs makes the space surprisingly cluttered and doesn't leave the performers with much room, which is probably quite intentional. The single unit set seems to owe a LOT to Derek McLane's design of I AM MY OWN WIFE, in that there is but a rear wall with a tower of memorabilia. Richard G. Jones' lighting design is fabulous and specific!

This production struck me on a more personal note. Many, many years ago, I studied voice with Kathryn Kaye in Denver, who it happens is (was?) Judy Kaye's sister-in-law. I studied with her for nearly five years preceding a Denver production of SWEENEY TODD that I was in, playing The Beadle. Nostalgia sort of swept all over me last night...


Xanna Don't said...

I remember when many musical artists began touring "acoustic" instead of full band back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was treated like a trend, a preference by many artists to spotlight their voices and songs. What it was really about was making touring more economical. Downsizing hit the arts! But this production sounds like it accomplished that in a very creative way.
Patti Lupone was on Good Morning America this week doing a tune from Gypsy. I can't imagine her playing the tuba! What a hoot.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

I MISSED Lupone on GMA doing Gypsy?! ARGH!! They might as well engrave that Tony Award NOW! Tony awards...? This weekend??

Brett W. Thompson said...

Wow Jay!! I had no idea you were an actor, that's amazing!! So many talents!!

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

Yep. That was "Part 1 of Jay" - a dozen years of acting, that my control issues continued into directing and producing, before I ran away to San Francisco to make MONEY! >:) That was "Part 2 of Jay" - a dozen years of banks and lawyers. sigh.. but the money was great!!! Now, I am in "Part 3 of Jay" and I am not sure what that is just yet... ;)