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.


  1. I've seen the original production and the Tim Burton film, but I was ignorant of the rest. Thanks for enlightening me, and nice blog!

  2. Y'know me. I love my SWEENEY TODD. Still, sadly, haven't seen a live performance of it (I hope I get to see it performed as opera sometime in the next few years ago).

    Shame the production wasn't everything you wanted it to be.