Thursday, March 27, 2008
It’s taken me a while to write about this. I’m unsure why; I perhaps thought the production would make more sense to me after a time away. Or maybe I thought I would like it more. But no, I just wasn’t as bowled over as I expected to be by the revival of Sweeney Todd directed by John Doyle currently at the Ahmanson. The reasons may have to do with the space, the nature of roadshows, or perhaps just the choices made. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed overall.
The production opens on a Cornell box of a stage—wooden slats lit from beneath and raked for a floor, with a back wall about twice as high. In the center of the back of the stage is a column of detritus—discarded, rusting odds and ends. At the base of this is a piano. Around the stage are chairs with performers. There is a coffin on sawhorses in the middle. Upstage left is a door. The door is frosted, possibly clinical looking. Some of the actors/musicians wear lab coats. Tobias, or the actor playing him, is in a straight jacket. As he starts to sing “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, attendants come and take off his jacket and hand him a violin.
Immediately, my mind goes to Marat/Sade. Great, I thought, we’ll have this whole extra-textual thing going on, where the inmates of the asylum play all the instruments while they enact out Sweeney Todd for some therapeutic purpose. Perhaps, even more interestingly, it’s all happening in Toby’s mind. Unfortunately for me, none of that seemed to be true. It revealed itself to be a clever and interesting visual trick, but no underlying sense to the world. This is, for some plays, not a really big deal. Godot could be set in space. Hamlet has been staged everywhere from a palace to a truck pull. Sweeney Todd, though, has a fairly specific vernacular, place, and trajectory that set it where it is. And if you move that setting, then I would hope it would be for some reason to illuminate what you have. If not, it’s theatrical, but missing bite. Now I can completely blame this on my being too literal, or wanting something that this revival was not interested in giving, but I do feel if you make a choice that’s this dramatic, why not go all the way? If it is a nightmare that Tobias is having, why is everyone so predictable? And if it is in an asylum, who are these people? Why are they telling this story? As it is, we have a story that references place and time constantly, but set in another. I really have no problem resetting this story, but when you make a strong visual choice it’s frustrating when there seems to be no follow through. Or just haphazard. There were suggestions of asylum, suggestions of nightmare, but everything was left amorphous. In a piece as ferocious as Sweeney Todd, I feel like things should not be a suggestion but an exclamation.
Like I said, perhaps it’s the space. The Ahmanson is large, and I’m still kicking myself I didn’t see this in a more intimate space in London when I had the chance. It could be that some of these choices were made, but I couldn’t see them in the enormity of the space. As it was, the production only raised questions for me. Why were these people in lab coats? Why are they playing instruments? If they are in an asylum, why is Sweeney allowed to have a razor blade? But even with those questions answered, I think the show took an interesting visual idea and went too far, but not far enough. I like the idea of a small, chamber, theatrical Sweeney. But for me, putting instruments in the hands of the actors makes them more than just the characters they play. So I want to know why they are playing the instruments. I want to know how the instruments are relating to each other, and why. And although there are a couple of interesting examples of this—Johanna and Antony both playing the cello; Mrs. Lovett with a tuba—for the most part the choices are more expedient.
It may have been, too, that casting actors who play instruments limits casting choices. The actor playing the judge was so wooden I had to make up his role in my head. He was almost actively bad. I liked Judy Kaye, but was not blown away, and I thought the guy who played Sweeney was fine. No one really captured my imagination. I guess in the end I just felt like there were interesting choices that just made me ask more questions than illuminate what was happening on stage. I spent much of the show thinking “wow, this would have been a great moment to illuminate this”, but seeing nothing there. Like I said, I could have just been too literal. I like my questions answered, and seeing things that surprise and shock me. I know it was bringing a new eye to something we’ve seen before, but it just didn’t quite hold together for me.
There was one wonderful moment, when the music stopped and the sound blood being poured from the bucket signifying one of the last killings was allowed to reverberate through the house. This was probably the most exciting, chilling moment of the show. And it was provided by a bucket.
Conversely, I loved the revival of Company starring Raul Esparza that I saw recently on PBS. Closeups, I admit, may have helped. Here, though, I loved the space, I loved the instruments, and the performances were spot on for me (except the one guy who was the judge in the LA Sweeney, who seems wooden close-up as well).
Company is an odd piece. I always feel like there are 5 or so people I remember—Bobby, Joanne, Amy, April, Marta, and the rest just kind of fade away into a haze. Who are those people again? What are their names? Why can’t I remember any of the other guys?
This production added two elements to solve that problem. The instruments meant that I could track people more, and their relationships continued after there one big scene and the incidentals. He plays a trumpet and she plays a flute? Ah, that makes perfect sense—he’s muting himself, and she’s wants to be heard above everything. She can be kind of shrill. And they’re competitive—you’re not sure if they belong together.
Also, keeping everyone on stage means that we see them in constant relationship to each other. And, best of all, they are constantly around and in Bobby’s life. This is something that I felt was missing from the other productions I’ve seen of this. All the couples went on and off stage. Bobby was on all the time. By having everyone on stage all the time, literally providing accompaniment to his life, we understand why Bobby needs to distance himself at the end. And when he finally is alone, and blows out his candles, we breathe a sigh of relief with him. I had never gotten that before. Adding “Marry Me a Little” to eh end of act one helps, too, which they did in the 95 production. This Company had an emotional arc and cohesiveness that I hadn’t experienced with this piece before. This set, too, and the costumes felt more “New York” to me than any I have seen.
I last saw this with Boyd Gaines, Debra Monk, and Jane Krakowski in ‘95. I liked it, but this production had much more of a cosmopolitan flair. I also just liked the performances more. Barbara Walsh was surprising as Joann, a role that seems to belong to Elaine Stritch. I also was taken by Elizabeth Stanley, whose April was sweet, and much more interesting than she gives herself credit for.
I still think it’s a flawed show—amazing music with an entertaining but thin book—it’s one of those experiments in trying to catch the feeling of living in the city with the structure of the piece—Boris Aronson famously did this with the original set. This was the first time I was emotionally engaged and felt that feeling of closeness and busy-ness without connection—possibly due to Raul Esparza’s tony-winning performance as Bobby. But he was certainly buoyed by the tone of this production, and like I said, it had a cohesiveness I hadn’t seen before. Loved it.