No one really knows whether there was a barber in Victorian London who slit his customers' throats and passed their bodies down a chute so that his harridan lover could make meat pies of them. There are evocative snippets in an old newspaper, a couple of popular nineteenth-century serials, an investigative book by true-crime detective Peter Haining, who claims that Todd existed — and many knowledgeable doubters. The story has been told several times and in several media, most recently in a movie starring Johnny Depp. A lot of words have been spun about why the demon barber story has endured so long; if there's any deeper meaning to the phenomenon, I think it's wrapped up in the fact that we love gore, and that cannibalism engenders particularly pleasurable shudders. Besides, over-the-top horror is funny — whether because laughter is the only way we can deal with it, or because we all possess a hidden streak of cruelty. Remember the jokes about Jeffrey Dahmer and how he liked a little headroom in his fridge? The way every woman tried to keep from grinning when the deliciously apt name Lorena Bobbitt came up? And surely you smirked a bit when you read recently about six severed feet in running shoes washing up on Vancouver Island — all but one of them right feet?
Of all the versions of this tale, Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, carries the most artistic heft. Sondheim keeps all the familiar elements — the squalid, gin-soaked streets we recognize from Dickens; the terrible poverty; the monstrous woman whose natural female kindness has curdled into avarice and cruelty; the hate-filled, shadows-haunting murderer himself and, of course, a golden-haired young woman — Todd's long-lost daughter, Johanna — and the innocent youth, Anthony, who falls in love with her. But he also adds one of the most interesting and sophisticated musical scores ever written, a score in which the tenderest melody imaginable floats over the grimmest subtext, every character is distinguished by specific curlicues of sound, and the ugliness of the bloodletting is exacerbated by dissonance and caterwauling.
This production, directed by John Doyle, an Englishman, has received all kinds of acclaim in both London and New York. He's made the musical new in two ways. First, he stripped it down, setting the action in a madhouse, keeping the scenery minimal and using various distancing devices. The actors don't look at each other, for example, and when someone is murdered, he or she simply steps from the barber's chair (a regular kitchen chair) and puts on a white jacket with red streaks down the front. A large coffin serves as furniture; a small white one appears in the second act and gets passed around and periodically cradled by Sweeney Todd — though for no discernable purpose that I could see.
Doyle's second innovation is having his ten hugely talented performers play instruments as well as act and sing. This adds an entirely original dimension as Johanna seems almost to merge with her cello, and meat-pie queen Mrs. Lovett — clad in a rump-hugging black dress and holey black stockings that come only to her knees — totes a trombone as big as her own body. Because you don't identify with the characters and the murders aren't particularly lurid, the focus becomes more cerebral, and you hear the music as never before — the wit and brilliance of such songs as "Pretty Women," sung by Todd and the Judge while the former prepares to slit the latter's unsuspecting throat; Mrs. Lovett warbling about her longing for a cuddly holiday "By the Sea" while she cleans blood from her butchers' tools; and the encomium to meat pies, "A Little Priest," surely one of the most wickedly funny ditties ever sung.
The cast is terrific. David Hess, a local actor who did a lot of work at Country Dinner Playhouse, is an entirely convincing Todd, and Judy Kaye is riveting as Mrs. Lovett. As played by Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina, Johanna and Anthony are not the tender young ingenues we expect: He's smoothly effete, and she's a jerking marionette and quite obviously barking mad. Edmund Bagnell's Tobias is a bit hammy, but his singing and violin-playing are first-rate. Benjamin Eakeley is an elegantly pompous Beadle, and Keith Buterbaugh an authoritative Judge. Playing the Beggar Woman, Diana DiMarzio veers between pathos and vicious madness, just as she should.
This Sweeney Todd probably works better in an intimate venue than it does at the Buell. It's also a good idea to refresh your memory of the plot in advance, because Doyle's approach makes things a little confusing. Somewhere in the second act, trying to figure out just who was doing what to whom, I found everything dissolving into a welter of demented sound. But this production is well worth experiencing for the freshness and intelligence it brings to an old story, the overlay of irony added to an already ironic libretto, and the glimpse you get into a debased and degraded world.