Seen on Broadway: Wildly acclaimed though it is, the new, stripped-down revival of Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O’Neill is a mix of the great and the not-so-great…but the not-so-great is at least interesting, making for a gripping if not fully satisfactory production. As surely as the demon barber of Fleet Street slashes his enemies’ throats, the thrust of this London import, directed and designed by John Doyle, is to slice the “cumbersome” bric-and-brac—all that period set and staging, which in its 1979 Broadway incarnation necessitated 27 performers—away from Stephen Sondheim’s superlative score, leaving the music to speak (or sing) largely for itself. And this it does: “No Place Like London,” Pretty Women,” and “Not While I’m Around,” to name just three of the classic songs, have never been heard so forcefully, and Dan Moses Schreier’s typically excellent sound design really concentrates your attention on the lyrics. Doyle has also taken his scalpel to the cast, cutting it down to a mere 10 players and, in a stroke of inspiration, giving them all instruments. If you’ve ever wanted to see Patti LuPone, as Mrs. Lovett, lug a tuba around the stage between the baking of villain-flavored meat pies, now’s your chance.
As pure, back-to-basics musical theater, it hangs together. True, it would work a little better if Michael Cerveris’ Sweeney, as bald and hulking as a mobster in a German silent film, didn’t start out so high-octane, giving him nowhere to go and making him a shade monotonous by Act II. But the slatternly LuPone and the supporting cast get right into the spirit of the thing (and Cerveris’ guitar playing is good). But Sweeney Todd isn’t Chicago, which only took off when its problematic staging was shorn in revival; Hugh Wheeler’s rock-solid book, a Tony Award winner, suffers from the extractions, and Eugene Lee’s Tony-winning set firmly steeped the production in Victorian times. It’s unclear where this version, which has a strong core but fuzzy edges, is taking place. LuPone’s clothes are Weimar, but everyone else slips in and out of period, with Sweeney clad in a black-leather jacket. Doyle, the credited designer, has put a black coffin onstage and has the actors carry around buckets of blood for effect, and there is the suggestion that this is all a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari nightmare afflicting the character of Tobias. This “timeless” approach is ultimately self-defeating; the full horror of the piece, its pointed critique of society, and quite frankly its basic coherence is lost as Doyle amuses with his minimalist tricks. I can only tell you that if you think a main character’s demise is as peaceful as dozing atop a coffin, then you’ve never really experienced Sweeney Todd (there’s a DVD of the original staging for comparison).
On its own merits, where design is concerned, the production is a success. Doyle’s set, with its towers of shelving stocked with macabre goodies like a forlorn doll in a cage (signifying the character of Johanna, in an unusually concrete touch) is at least insinuating, even if what it’s insinuating never comes into focus. Richard G. Jones’ lighting design doesn’t mess with success; I believe Ken Billington’s original illumination called for the units to go to blood-red for homicides, and that (and the chilling instrumental shriek that accompanies the murders) has been retained. [Showmotion built and painted the scenery, with PRG supplying the audio and the lighting.] Wig and hair designer Paul Huntley and makeup designer Angelina Avallone are clearly having fun helping the actors play dress-up, in their mismatched, ragtag duds and styles. Don’t misunderstand: I had a good time with this rendition, even if I felt if some of Doyle’s obvious energy and enthusiasm have been misapplied, the best musicals being a whole lot more than just music. But I had a great time with last season’s fully staged production at New York City Opera, which really knew how to draw blood.
Jersey Boys, at the August Wilson, revives the jukebox musical, a form many hoped the abject failures of Good Vibrations and Lennon, and the more appealing All Shook Up, would have bankrupted for good. The new show, though, has two things going for it: A bunch of familiar songs (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “My Eyes Adored You,” etc.) and an unfamiliar group history, which co-writers Marshall Brickman (an Oscar winner for Annie Hall) and Rick Elice bring to life with more street smarts and sharp-edged, foul-mouthed humor than I’m used to hearing on a Broadway stage from this kind of VH-1 level show. Imported to New York from San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, the show, directed by Des McAnuff, now has a home court advantage, and I admit, without shame, to clapping along myself. This Jersey Boy has spent a lot of time in Belleville, NJ, where Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons were hatched, and there’s a basic, offhand, unforced accuracy to the show; my parents probably have some of Jess Goldstein’s costumes in our house somewhere. The foibles of the group as they make their mobbed-up way up and down the ladder of success, with each member having his say about the gangsters, gambling, and girls, are fun (and a little sad, too) to hear related—when group leader Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff), stuck for a name, learns that a guy named Vivaldi already has a Four Seasons, he wants him “taken care of.” It’s practically a musical Goodfellas, complete with a hilarious impersonation of future Oscar-winner Joe Pesci, in his misspent youth the Four Seasons’ gofer, by Michael Longoria (his hair was I’m sure a particular challenge for wig and hair designer Charles LaPointe).
Klara Zieglerova’s set is the standard mix of catwalks and modest, humorous set elements, like car grilles, neon lounge signs, and a slipcovered couch that fly on and off to indicate a scene change. These are enlivened by Michael Clark’s pop art projections, straight from the Roy Lichtenstein scrapbook, and Howell Binkley’s expressive but reasonably subdued lighting, careful not to break period by allowing too much 80’s-era movement to intrude on the 60’s and 70’s period. The socko contribution is of course from sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy, whose powerhouse audio really puts the faux Four Seasons (headlined by the uncanny falsetto performance of John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli) across. [ShowMotion handled the scenery, show control, and automation; PRG the lights, Masque Sound the audio, and Sound Associates the projection equipment.] A word, too, about Zieglerova’s scenic drops, adapted from George Tice photographs: Their outlines of water tanks, electric pylons, and refineries, in blue and orange hues, made me nostalgic for the New Jersey Turnpike, which is no little accomplishment.
Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir is a sort of reverse Jersey Boys: If force of talent is what pushed the Four Seasons to the top, then lack of same is what propelled Florence Foster Jenkins into the limelight in her day. A dowager straight from a Marx Brothers picture, Jenkins fancied herself an opera diva, and while she had the carriage and diction to play the part there was one obstacle: A voice that sounded like cats being strangled. When her long-suffering accompanist, the improbably named Cosme McMoon, tries to dissuade her from performing, suggesting “a want of accuracy” in her singing, Jenkins tsk-tsks him, saying, “Surely, Mr. Mozart meant the notes to be suggestions.” And it’s off to a singular career that took in popular recitals at her home base, the Ritz Carlton Hotel, recordings, and a crowning Red Cross benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, which McMoon reflects upon two decades later in an affectionate “fantasia” based on her life and celebrity. I love this kind of P.G. Wodehouse tweaking of the eccentricities of the upper classes, and I enjoyed most of Souvenir, which has a tremendously funny performance by Judy Kaye as Jenkins, who heard only applause, and never catcalls, from the stage (she’s terribly poignant, too, when confronted by the harsh fact that audiences came to laugh at her efforts, including a brutal “Ave Maria” to make angels wail).
Directed by Vivian Matalon, Souvenir is in the end somewhat indulgent; Donald Corren, as McMoon, plays beautifully but overworks his double-takes, and the second act spotlights what seems to be a recreation of the entire Carnegie Hall concert. Once again, a potentially great one-act play has been expanded to a lumbering and less distinctive two acts. It must be said, though, that the overgenerous running time does give Kaye the chance to pop in and out of several hilarious Carnegie Hall costumes designed by Tracy Christensen, like the Spanish outfit pictured (she’s singing McMoon’s own composition, to his consternation). R. Michael Miller’s pleasing proscenium-within-a-proscenium set doesn’t shirk in its triple duty as the Ritz, Carnegie Hall, and the Greenwich Village supper club from which McMoon narrates, and the environments are smoothly delineated by Ann G. Wrightson’s supple lighting. David Budries’ sound design is unsparing: Every musical massacre comes through loud and clear and there is a wonderful evocation of the Carnegie Hall concert, where the hoots of the audience are overlaid in the mix and gradually overwhelm the Lyceum Theatre, a relic itself that may have trouble withstanding the nightly abuse. [Showman Fabricators built the scenery, with PRG supplying the lights and Masque Sound the audio.] Souvenir is a nice keepsake of a vanished era.
Seen Off Broadway: After a disastrous Hamletat the Public a few years back I vowed “never again” with the Great Dane, who at the time was also the subject of several not particularly rewarding movies I dutifully went to see. But you can’t stay away from Elsinore forever, and with the superb Shakespearean actor Michael Cumpsty reuniting with director Brian Kulick off I went to the Classic Stage Company for another round (the two had teamed on a surprising Timon of Athens a few seasons back at the Delacorte). CSC has a reputation for “antic” productions, and I sensed something rotten in Denmark when the audience was herded into the center of the stage for the first scene; surrounded as we were by the white paper walls that define Mark Wendland’s set, I pictured a kind of De La Guarda version of the story, with Cumpsty flying in overhead to drop balloons from the rafters.
Fortunately, once we shown our seats, the worst was over, and outside of a few missteps (notably Robert Dorfman’s portrayal of Claudius as a mincing dandy straight from The Producers) the text chugged along nicely, paced by Cumpsty’s straight-ahead, action-oriented performance. He slaps around Gertrude and Ophelia like Robert Mitchum in a 40s B-picture, gives the excellent Polonius of Herb Foster a mighty shiv in the arras scene, and defaces, then busts through, those paper walls. Cumpsty has a rich, intoxicating voice perfect for the more reflective passages, too, and I wasn’t bored, or particularly at odds with the vision of the production, which calls for Wendland’s set and Oana Botez-Ban’s largely milky-white costumes to be thoroughly trashed by the bitter end. Sound (by Jorge Muelle) and lighting (Brian H. Scott) are in keeping with the aims of this rendition (Dynamic Productions supplied the scenery, lighting, and sound equipment for the show). A large black mouse that wandered in and took its place at the side of the stage seemed to be having a good time, too, and fit right in. --Robert Cashill