Within a few notes of the orchestra starting up, and a deep-voiced chorus member exhorting me to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” I knew I was safe.
Which is a funny word to use regarding a mordant modern musical in which bodies are mercilessly hacked to bits and served as restaurant delicacies. But “Sweeney Todd” is a famously tough, stringy show to attempt. I’ve seen too many directors misjudge the balance of comedy and tragedy, or dumb down the psychological intricacies of the plot because they don’t trust the audience’s intelligence. I’ve seen too many productions fail because the performers simply weren’t up to the rigor of Stephen Sondheim’s multi-layered score. I’ve seen the Victorian penny-dreadful shock-fiction elements overwhelm the show’s contemporary dramatic ones. I’ve seen plenty of weak, watery renditions, and so few meaty ones.
Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series production of “Sweeney Todd,” running through July 1, slays. It kills. It has balance, control, skill and just the right amount of bloodthirstiness. It impresses on every level, starting with its star.
It’s not just a thrill to see Terrence Mann tackle the role of Sweeney Todd — it’s a privilege. The New York theater legend (from the original Broadway casts of “Cats” and “Les Mis,” and most recently the off Broadway hit “Jerry Springer The Opera”) sinks his teeth deeply into this famously difficult role and comes out smiling and dripping blood.
Mann has thought through every facial gesture, every deep dark vocal intonation. He gets laughs. He gets screams. He hits all the notes. His Sweeney Todd makes my spine tingle.
Fans of this singular, sinister musical know that you don’t just see it. It entreats you to:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd:
The demon barber of Fleet Street
… and that is pretty much the plot, plus some tragic flourishes that fall into the “spoiler alert” category. The lyrics are florid, the action is sensationalized and psychopathic and the emotional range is operatic. The musical is based on a Victorian legend that became a garish stage spectacle. The musical’s book is by Hugh Wheeler, based in part on a nonmusical 1970 stage adaptation by British playwright Christopher Bond, which amped up the story’s psychological elements.
The show begins with the title character getting out of jail and hoping to restart his life, and his career as a barber. Memories of past romances, and some grudges against the judicial system, endure. Sweeney Todd meets up with Mrs. Lovett, who sings about how she makes the worst meat pies in London. Todd’s anger gets the better of him, he realizes he needs to dispose of a few dead bodies. Overnight folks are raving about the enhanced quality of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
CT Rep is selling itself short by billing this as an “in concert” production. It’s fully staged (by Peter Flynn), with a multiplatform set (designed by Tim Brown), fashionable Victorian costumes (by Christina Lorraine Bullard), sumptuous sound effects (by Michael Vincent Skinner) and extravagant lighting (by Alan C. Edwards). The only props that are mimed are those murderous meat pies — everything else, from flagons of ale to gleaming razors to assorted bloody body parts are brandished merrily by the sweaty, sooty-faced cast. A lean, stripped-down production is not the same thing as a “concert” one. As if to throw this in our faces, the show starts with the accustomed concert-style line of microphone stands across the stage. But then the stands are swept away and the actors, who are all wearing body mics, start doing complex choreography.
Mann is terrific, but the role of Sweeney Todd can not be performed in a vacuum. As Mrs. Lovett, Broadway veteran Liz Larsen doesn’t equal Mann’s range, and doesn’t have to: She opts for providing solid, steady comic relief. As Anthony and Johanna, the young lovers whom Todd and Lovett try to help save from the clutches of her tyrannical guardian Judge Turpin, Hugh Entrekin is heroically dashing and Emilie Kouatchou has a soaring, classically trained singing voice. They combine to raise the romance to a higher plateau.
As the Judge Turpin, Ed Dixon grows in evil stature as “Sweeney Todd” proceeds. The high point is his duet with Mann: the judge sitting in the barber’s chair while Sweeney Todd sharpens his razor. Dixon intones a casual “bum-da-bum-bum” while Mann whistles. It’s a breathtaking moment of harrowing, suspenseful harmony.
The cast is served well by the dozen bowler-hatted musicians in the onstage band. The keyboardists switch from clean piano sounds to ominous organ chords. The violinist and cellist are key players, and the brass section has a French horn and a trombone as well as a trumpet. The drummer/percussionist gets a real workout, evoking the shrieking tones of the shower scene in “Psycho” on a vibraphone while also wielding a gong mallet for some of the show’s most thunderous revelations.
“Sweeney Todd” is a shocking show, full of grisly surprises. Quality should not have to be one of those surprises — the Nutmeg Summer Series is a highly professional operation that regularly delivers entertaining shows. Yet CT Rep, and the magnificent Terrence Mann, deliver much more than is expected here. They delve into the psychological depth and high-dramatic danger that’s demanded. This “Sweeney Todd” cuts deep. Prepare to be amazed while being appalled. And feel safe. You’re in good bloody hands.
SWEENEY TODD plays through July 1 at Harriet S. Jorgensen Auditorium, 2132 Hillside Road, Storrs. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 an d 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $55. 860-486-2113 and crt.uconn.edu.