The current production of Sweeney Todd, produced by CanStage and running at the Bluma Appel Theatre until April 19, elects to present the story as a sideshow entertainment. The resulting macabre jokiness eliminates the possibility of an emotional response to the play's most desperate moments, but director Morris Panych wouldn't have it any other way. (The set, designed by Ken MacDonald, reinforces the fact that we are watching a staged and stagy performance.) Whether or not this approach fulfills the musical's ambitions is for each audience member to decide. For my part, the emotional distance and the generally haphazard style of the acting company make this reading of Sondheim's funniest and bleakest composition more bland than bloody.
In a world chaotic, desperate and where those who survive do so by their willingness to destroy those around them, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, the play's two central characters, find one another and join forces. While he is seeking vengeance for wrongs done to him by a judge (and the entire justice system), she is bent on satisfying her insatiable appetite for material gain. What is both chilling and riotous is watching this pair of uncommonly common folks embracing their deepest and most selfish dreams.
George Masswohl, who plays the title role, finds his strength in the musical passages. He conveys a steady determination to satisfy his basest instincts without overstating his passion. He is less compelling in spoken scenes and he fails to define the moment when he surrenders himself to his blood lust. He begins the evening in emotional isolation and there he stays. Fiona Reid, as Mrs. Lovett, mines the humour in the role and proves that, in the right hands, an actor can master a Sondheim score. Her dexterity with lyrics is a model for how attention to text transcends even the most inventive staging. Reid is content to stand and deliver her musical monologues. Only By the Sea, a second act comic solo, reveals her limitations. (Panych's choreography during the number suggests that he, too, is aware of her limitations and, mistakenly, brings on the ensemble to tart up a moment that needs no window dressing.) Tyley Ross, as the young sailor, sings well but lacks weight and credibility as a force to reckon with, and Regan Thiel, playing Johanna, works hard to convince us of her distress.
Elsewhere, the cast is uneven. Bruce Dow, as Pirelli, sings tremendously well, but he has been encouraged to overact to a degree that makes his murder something of a relief. Damien Atkins, as the Beadle, sings nicely in his gruesome scene with Mrs. Lovett, but he is also permitted grotesque license with his physical and vocal performance that doesn't flatter this talented actor. Michael Fletcher is appropriately frightening and loathsome as Judge Turpin, but Panych stages his principal musical moment so badly that Fletcher effectively disappears from mind the moment he is offstage. Shaun Amyot sings the role of Tobias beautifully, but his final scene, and the play's climactic moment, goes for nothing as it is staged. (And his visible microphone only exacerbates the emotional distance between stage and audience.) The ensemble singing is consistently excellent, though Panych would have done them all a favour by relaxing the rigid and meaningless choreography he has assigned them.
This is the fourth production of Sweeney Todd that I have seen and the first to take such a cool approach. I am struck by this production's utter lack of passion and sexuality and by the fact that characters who are so able to release themselves to their darkest impulses can do so with relative ease. I am further struck by the fact that with the score's final chords, the evening is not much more than a musical thriller. Panych is wise to have avoided the finger pointing that Prince inflicted on the original production's closing, a final image that was both self-congratulatory and self-defeating. But by the final blackout, Panych's lack of a point of view makes one wonder what first attracted him to this project. Perhaps he was drawn to the epic nature of the writing. ("I like largeness, big things," he revealed in a recent interview.) Perhaps a story so over-the-top and grotesque spoke to his preference for things surreal and hypernatural. But whatever the root inspiration may have been, the answer is not up on the stage.
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