Sweeney Todd opened without its leading man, but no matter. Judy Kaye was there as Mrs. Lovett, the grisly pie baker who dreams of settling down with the demon barber of Fleet Street, and she gave a performance that ranks among the best ever.
With Kaye in one of the classic roles of musical theater, under the Tony Award-winning direction of John Doyle, this revival is must-see theater.
David Hess, who normally plays Sweeney, was indisposed Tuesday night, and standby David Garry went on in the musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) at Mahaffey Theater. Garry not only portrayed the serial-killing barber, but he also played trumpet and other instruments as part of the company of actors who double as the orchestra in Doyle's minimalistic staging.
If Garry is not the Sweeney of anyone's dreams — his singing was thick and labored at times and lacked color — he turned in a solid, workmanlike performance at the half-full Mahaffey. His bloody barber started out diffident and grew into a monstrous seeker of revenge against society and the judge who sent him to prison.
Garry rose to the occasion for one of Sondheim's most remarkable songs, Pretty Women, the duet by Sweeney and Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh), doomed to be dispatched to his maker "impeccably shaved.''
Some great performers have put their stamp on Mrs. Lovett — Angela Lansbury in the original 1979 production, Patty LuPone in the Doyle revival on Broadway. Helena Bonham Carter played her in the movie. But it's hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Kaye.
Her Lovett is a matronly slattern in torn fishnet stockings. She brings out the bawdy English music-hall comedy in Sondheim's thriller-diller, something completely missing from the solemn movie with Johnny Depp as the barber. Kaye gets big laughs in The Worst Pies in London ("I should know, I make them'') and Lovett's giddy duet to cannibalism with her partner in gore, A Little Priest. She also sings with a touching girlish sweetness in the baker's dream of normalcy, By the Sea, evocatively accompanied by flute and clarinet.
The actor-musician concept works surprisingly well, thanks to Sarah Travis' brilliant orchestrations and a cast immersed in the show. Not only have the 10 actors learned their lines as usual, but they also memorized the orchestra parts, a mighty impressive feat. Sondheim's choruses were dropped from the movie, but in many ways, it's those big numbers by the entire company such as The Ballad of Sweeney Todd and City on Fire that give the score its feverish power.
In Doyle's abstract design, the stage is little more than a big black box, sparsely furnished with a coffin, stepladder, shelves of bric-a-brac and a few chairs, atmospherically lighted in gold streaks from behind the slatted rear wall. The play begins as Tobias (Edmund Bagnell) is freed from a straitjacket and handed a violin by white-coated attendants, suggesting a lunatic asylum. All that follows apparently takes place inside the head of the traumatized waif who was taken in by Sweeney and Lovett.
Instead of the graphic gore and violence of the Tim Burton-directed movie, the Doyle version goes the metaphorical route, with red liquid poured from one bucket to another to flashing red light and a piercing factory whistle whenever Sweeney slits a customer's throat. Dramatically, it may be more effective than the movie's bloodbath, as some murders drew audible gasps from the audience.
The touring company has several outstanding actors from the Broadway revival, including Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson as the cello-playing juvenile leads, Johanna and Anthony. Molina's performance of Green Finch and Linnet Bird is definitive. Magnuson's young sailor has some of the more mannered, overwrought moments in the tale. Also from the Broadway company is Diana DiMarzio as the beggar woman and Benjamin Eakeley as Beadle Bamford.
Pirelli, the foppish barber who makes the fatal mistake of trying to blackmail Sweeney, is a perennial scene stealer in productions of Sweeney Todd (see Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie). Katrina Yaukey is a sparkling presence in the role, and she also plays a mean accordion.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.