Thursday, September 8, 2011

Un-Aesthetics: Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber

Sweeney Todd @ Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook IL
September 1, 2011

This blog is named “Aesthetic Experience” so I feel marginally bad posting about an un-aesthetic experience. But here it is, for your enjoyment or lack thereof.

On our first night back in Wheaton my junior year, my roommate Ryan showed me a filming of the original 1979 staging of Sondheim's infamous "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street". It was gross, offensive, and absolutely enjoyable. Len Cariou's portrayal of the psychopathic Sweeney was disturbing in his resolve, his vengeful strength incarnate in his forceful vocal work. Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett, the cheery cannibalistic sidekick who gleefully serves customers human meat pies, was and continues to be a highlight. I'm not one to sing musical numbers, but I do remember singing "A Little Priest" with my friend Steve in the car while waiting for our friend at the airport (I was Sweeney and he was Mrs. Lovett, of course).

*sigh* Mrs. Lovett

Tim Burton's 2007 rendition of Sweeney Todd was also quite enjoyable. Johnny Depp is an amazing actor, and with Alan Rickman as the lecherous Judge Turpin and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, it did some sort of justice to the original production, though I know it didn't satisfy the theatre snobs out there.

I know it's not right to say, but I think
Johnny Depp & H.B. Carter should just have an affair
just so Tim Burton will stop making movies with them.

At the end of Blade and Alyssa's wedding rehearsal dinner, the waiter approached us with a handful of tickets. "Would anyone like to see Sweeney Todd?" he asked. I raised my hand, and he handed me ten. "Take your friends," he said. Hey! Free tickets. That's pretty great, amirite? I got several other friends together and we tripped out to the Drury Lane Theatre at 1:30pm on a Thursday. I sent the others in and waited for the one running late, so I missed the first half hour. The sounds were there--the opening dirge, the loud whistle, so loud I heard it out in the foyer area reading my Salman Rushdie book.

"Yes, I swear the piss is fresh."

We came in during Pirelli's presentation of his piss-mixture. My eyes scanned the stage for Sweeney Todd--he was in this scene, wasn't he? After surveying the crowd, I realised with dawning disappointment that the rather eccentric looking man, spare-framed and gangly, was in fact the infamous Sweeney Todd. His disposition, his performance, everything about him, was anything but imposing. The man--Gregg Edelman--was eccentric. He was a bit strange. And he had none of the charisma Len Cariou brought to the role. His musical performance was more than wanting: there was no purpose to his movement, no hubris, no conviction. This was no hero of Sondheim's Victorian greek tragedy. His skin, pale, his eye odd, and indeed he swung his razor wide in "Epiphany". Perhaps too wide. Considering Depp's acting in the theatrical take:

Edelman flailed his arms horizontally, then occasionally diagonally, with a dead expression, off-tune, hardly a barber, much less a demon. It was disappointing to say the least. What should have been a passionate, defiant, hateful scene was more or less bland and uninteresting.

I wonder what Villainous Assistant meat pies taste like.

Other members of the cast were more than tolerable, however. Liz McCartney gave a fine impression of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett, and Kevin Gudahl was convincing as Judge Turpin (though some heavy-handed directing made his contemptible lechery more of an eye-roller than it ought to have been). George Andrew Wolff's Beadle was hilarious and just the right mix of disgusting. When he wasn't attempting a Glasgow/Dublin/Faux-Scottish accent, George Keating's Pirelli was charmingly, alarmingly, endearingly effeminate.

"I swear, dearie: Innocence is overrated."

Yet these were minor graces in what seemed to be a breathless and tired reproduction. Jonah Rawitz, playing young Tobias, spent most of his numbers out of breath, as did most of the cast. Acting was ham-handed and lacked nuance, and Heidi Kettenring, playing the "Beggar Woman" was singing in a key all her own.

"Please, sir! Teach me how to sing!"

The set--adequately described as an "abbatoir" by one reviewer--was great, and went down without a hitch. For one of my friends, who had never seen Sweeney Todd before, this production was great. Sweeney Todd is by far my favourite musical, and the caliber of the music is evident despite the obvious tarnish here. Even a mediocre effort can yield a something, though the upsetting series of high school productions say otherwise.

Compare to Angela Lansbury's iconic--though here somewhat frenzied--performance (here with George Hearn rather than Len Cariou)

Some Sweeney is perhaps better than none, and I don't regret going, especially considering that the after-show meal at Culvers yielded a thirty minute conversation with friends exclusively deciding which of our friend group would fit in which Hogwarts house. Oakbrook, congrats for trying, but get a better, more in-tune cast if you want to do Sondheim's dark masterpiece some justice.

srsly folks it's not hard to act deranged when you have a razor in hand

*Images used without permission. Please don't sue me.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Take Two)

Bon Iver

I tracked down a low-quality leak of Bon Iver’s self-titled album near the start of May. My internet connection was terrible—it was Southeast Asia—and I was sort of walking around packing, organizing for my move back to the US while I waited the requisite hour for the album to download. I wasn’t a fanboy of For Emma, Forever Ago despite the high playcount in my iTunes library, but I was intrigued, perhaps more by the thought of having the album several weeks in advance than by the album itself.

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(My Living Room in Pakse) 

It was midmorning when I put the thing on, and I didn’t know what to make of it. “Perth” thundered out of my speakers and I was suddenly hooked. Really? This was Bon Iver? It didn’t sound myopic or frozen: it sounded like something full-grown, rich, green. It was warm where For Emma was cold; the affect here had expanded to become epic yet still personal. It was a Justin Vernon who finally sang in Hadestown, Orpheus who’d learned to trust others to sing the rest. The sound cut an easy path through my mind for the next half hour as I scurried through the house displacing boxes, organizing the last of my stuff. “Beth/Rest” made my jaw drop. I stopped and sat down on the couch laughing, thinking “Really? He actually wrote this song? Is this even happening?” It’s eighties melodrama at its absolute best—every time I hear this song I have to suppress the desire to redefine my relationship with whoever’s closest. It’s the least “Bon Iver” song on the album, but that doesn’t keep it from sounding amazing every time. And I mean. Every. Time. IMG 0030

(Colorado Summer) 

I recently began tagging albums according to their season in my iTunes library. M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent is summer because of its warm, earth-yellow tones. Sonya Cotton’s fall-leaf album Red River is an obvious choice for autumn. I try to step back and really let the music’s tone and verve determine the choice of season rather than when I came to the album. I can’t place Bon Iver’s latest, though. It’s a warm, kind cycle of songs, but I couldn’t tell you which season they describe most. Justin Vernon lays waste to Halloween; he sings about iced highways and one-pieced swimmers. Is the album art winter defrosting to spring or a vibrant summer? I can’t decide.

IMG 0027

In the end, I have to throw these classifiers out because this is, for me, one of those rare albums that I think—and hope—will be relevant in each season. Barbara calls them “life albums”. I’m such a geek that I’ve even made a list of these life albums—cycles of music that I keep picking up no matter the season or year, no matter how long ago I discovered it.


(Winter in Wausau) 

Along with seasons, there are images I associate with each album: images that denote place, state of mind, memory. I wrote a while back about Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago and how it denoted the South Pacific for me. I see some of my favourite images of the Midwest, Wisconsin, duck-call lakes and reeds in Chris Kiehne’s Pray For Daylight, and long lazy trailer park summers in the National’s Alligator. I don’t yet have this for Bon Iver; I’ve walked desert paths in Colorado, and I’m sure I’ll see a number of snow-scapes that resonate, but I wonder if this album didn’t come to me a little too early—I wonder if this is something I’ll be carrying to Mongolia, if it will invoke the wind and plains more than anything else. Time will tell, I guess.