Back in the day, you had to be a triple threat to make it in theater. But the ten performers in the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd play all the instruments in addition to acting, singing and dancing. Thrillingly, every cast member is up to the challenge, even erratic diva Patti LuPone, who blows into a tuba as she sashays about the stage. For those unfamiliar with this Grand Guignol, barber Sweeney Todd (the deliciously scary Michael Cerveris) returns to London incognito to exact revenge on the men who raped his wife and falsely imprisoned him 15 years earlier. After pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett (LuPone) takes him in, Sweeney goes on a murder spree and she comes up with a gruesome way to dispose of the bodies.
Because of its Victorian setting and multiple killings, Sweeney Todd is usually produced on a large scale with lavish sets, bloody special effects and a 27-piece orchestra. Director–cum-designer John Doyle has stripped the show of its excesses and in doing so has made it much more powerful. Using a Goth palette of red, white and black, and one simple set, he shines the spotlight on Sondheim’s emotional songs and the cast’s glorious performances. The production is so intimate and seamless that the audience doesn’t clap after most of the numbers for fear of breaking the spell. Like Sam Mendes’ reconceived Cabaret or Walter Bobbie’s bare bones Chicago, Doyle’s Sweeney Todd makes even longtime fans (and I’m one of them, hell I played Mrs. Lovett off-off-off-off-Broadway) feel like they’re seeing the show for the very first time.