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At the Mahaffey, murder well orchestrated

Sweeney Todd is one radical piece of musical theater.

Only Stephen Sondheim would dream up a musical about a serial killer barber, Sweeney Todd, and his ghoulish partner in mayhem, Mrs. Lovett, a baker who turns the remains of Sweeney's victims into "the worst pies in London.''

"It is an audacious vision, but I think the world is catching up to Sondheim,'' said Judy Kaye, who plays Mrs. Lovett in the touring production of an acclaimed Broadway revival that arrives in St. Petersburg this week. It comes in the wake of the hit movie of the musical starring Johnny Depp.

Sweeney Todd is the equivalent of a Victorian "penny dreadful,'' with its bloody tale of the "demon barber of Fleet Street'' who seeks vengeance on a judge who sent him to prison and then took advantage of his wife and daughter. Sweeney gives his customers the closest shave in London and then slits their throats.

The revival features the starkly abstract staging of John Doyle, a Scottish director who is the pre-eminent interpreter of Sondheim nowadays. Doyle transforms the sweeping score by eliminating the orchestra and having the actors not only sing and speak dialogue but also play the instruments.

The 10 members of the cast range from violin to accordion, piano to soprano sax. For example, the actors portraying the young lovers Johanna (Lauren Molina) and Anthony (Benjamin Magnuson) play cellos.

"Initially, it scared the hell out of me to have to learn to be a musical accompanist,'' said Kaye, who plays tuba, glockenspiel and percussion in the show. A veteran Broadway performer who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, she hadn't played an instrument in a show since strumming a guitar in Godspell.

"I was absolutely certain I was going to destroy someone else's number,'' Kaye said of the formidable task of having to memorize not just her lines but also the instrumental parts. "But it's actually a wonderful ensemble feeling. The story and the music feed off each other.''

Unusual storytelling

Kaye has played Mrs. Lovett in five productions through the years, and she admits to missing hearing Sondheim's gorgeous score being played by an orchestra. The musical is often performed by opera companies, and one of the best recordings is a concert version by the New York Philharmonic.

"But the tradeoff is very interesting,'' she said. "I think this production probably exposes the drama a little more. It certainly exposes the lyrics more.''

Doyle began having actors double as musicians while working in regional theaters in Great Britain that couldn't afford an orchestra. His first actor-musician effort was Candide, and he refined the method in everything from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to the Jerry Herman musical Mack & Mabel.

"There's more to it than just being about actors who play instruments,'' Doyle told the St. Petersburg Times in 2006, when his Sweeney Todd was playing on Broadway, where it won Tonys for his direction and Sarah Travis' orchestrations. "There is a storytelling technique that is about asking the audience to use its imagination in all sorts of ways. I think it allows you to look at a piece in a totally different way than the authors when they wrote it.''

Sondheim loves the director's approach to his work. Last season's revival of Company on Broadway got the Doyle treatment and won the Tony for best revival. The Scot is slated to direct Sondheim's latest musical, Bounce, at New York's Public Theater in the fall.

Simplify, simplify

The Doyle revival of Sweeney Todd is a kind of memory play, opening in an asylum as Tobias, a young man driven crazy by the horrific saga he witnessed, is freed from a straitjacket and handed a violin. He and the rest of the cast are onstage for the entire performance. With minimal set and props — a coffin, a ladder, a half-dozen chairs, shelves of bric-a-brac — the production moves from Sweeney's parlor to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop to the judge's chambers. But it leaves the surreal impression of having taken place completely in Tobias' head.

"John Doyle's entire concept is about simplifying it to the point of having the storytelling being the No. 1 ingredient,'' said David Hess, who plays Sweeney (and trumpet). "He loves metaphor and symbolism. It challenges the actor to be as honest and genuine as possible. You can't depend on the set or the props or the makeup to do the work for you.''

Hess has big shoes to fill, playing the role that was given famous performances in the original 1979 Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince and first starring Len Cariou and later George Hearn. Michael Cerveris played Sweeney in the Doyle revival on Broadway opposite Patty LuPone's Mrs. Lovett.

"I try not to think about it,'' Hess said of the illustrious legacy of the role. "I would love to give a big, operatic performance like Len Cariou or George Hearn, but that's just not my makeup. My Sweeney is more of a regular guy, not some larger-than-life, demonic figure.''

At first, Hess avoided seeing the movie, not wanting to be influenced by Depp's performance, but in the end he couldn't resist. "I like to know what's going on, what's out there, so I finally went and saw it,'' he said. "I was thrilled that they took such a different approach than ours. I thought Johnny Depp was very interesting, and I loved what he did with it. But the subtlety, which was so wonderful on film, wouldn't work on the big stage.''

Film vs. stage

From a marketing standpoint, the Sweeney Todd tour has a powerful tailwind in the form of the movie, which has earned $150-million since its December release. The movie, directed by Tim Burton, reveled in the blood and gore of Sweeney's killing spree. In the Doyle staging, red paint is poured from bucket to bucket every time the barber dispatches a victim.

"The movie had to be graphic. You couldn't get away with pouring buckets of blood on the screen,'' Kaye said. "But it (the metaphorical Doyle approach) works just fine. I hear screams and gasps in the audience. They get it.''

Rick Pender, managing editor of the Sondheim Review, a magazine devoted to the composer-lyricist, is a close student of the differences between various versions of Sweeney Todd. He thinks the movie misses the dark humor of the stage productions — except for the cartoony spurts of blood — and focuses almost exclusively on the relationship of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. The romance between Johanna and Anthony, an important aspect of the play, doesn't register as strongly in the movie.

Pender is a Doyle fan, though he recommends getting familiar with the story before seeing the revival. "Just to go into Doyle's production cold, it might be a little hard to follow,'' he said. "It is so boiled down and distilled in some ways that you begin to lose a little bit of the texture of the relationship between characters.''

Sondheim rising

Sweeney Todd is the most high-profile show in Mahaffey's Broadway series, which had sparse attendance for the other offerings of its inaugural season, The Wedding Singer and the Ten Tenors. (Camelot was canceled.) It is a rare treat for Sondheim fans in the bay area. His only musical (aside from West Side Story and Gypsy, for which he wrote just lyrics) to play here in a major national tour was Into the Woods at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1989.

Side by Side by Sondheim, a revue, is the sole Sondheim show to have been produced by American Stage, the Asolo Theatre and Stageworks, all in the 1980s. There was a production of his chamber musical Assassins by the now-defunct Tampa Players in 1994. Otherwise, it has been left to community theaters and high school and university companies to bring the work of the American theater's greatest living composer-lyricst to the area.

Now, with the success of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim's time seems to have come.

"The movie and this revival are bringing people into a live stage show for the first time in their lives,'' Kaye said. "We have a new audience for Sondheim, which gives me hope for the future of musical theater.''

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or

Sweeney Todd • The Stephen Sondheim musical opens Tuesday and runs through May 11 at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. $30-$70. (727) 892-5767.

At the Mahaffey, murder well orchestrated 05/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 3, 2008 4:31am]
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