The Dueling Critics choose not to murder each other over 'Sweeney Todd'

September 2, 2011

Editor's Note: This week, the Dueling Critics cross swords over a production at Stephen Sondheim's musical adaptation of Sweeney Todd at the Drury Lane Theater in west suburban Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois.

KELLY: Ever since Terence McNally's Lisbon Traviata, in which one character harshly mocks its title song, I've had a hard time remembering whether, and why, I liked Sweeney Todd. This Stephen Sondheim show is perhaps the only inhabitant of the genre "shock operetta." Its plot is simple, and simply horrifying: our eponymous 19th Century anti-hero is consumed with desire for revenge against the men who sent him to a penal colony so they could despoil his wife and kidnap his daughter (and who could blame him?). When deprived of that revenge Mr. Todd decides to team up with his landlady to slit throats in his barber's chair and then bake the victims into pies. Think The Count of Monte Cristo meets Titus Andronicus, with music. Are you nauseated yet, Jonathan?

JONATHAN: Nauseated? Of course not! I lived in London and I LIKE meat pies, not to mention warm beer. Besides this is a Stephen Sondheim musical (everyone forgets that Hugh Wheeler wrote the book, based on a play by Christopher Hampton and a multiplicity of rich source materials dating back to the actual Sweeney Todd), and it very likely is the best damn production of Sweeney Todd you'll ever see. Musically and dramatically, it is a wonder, plus it's been done big--which means done right--by Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Cast of 27 and a nine-piece orchestra faithful to the original orchestrations and score, word-for-word and note-for-note. I've seen many versions of Sweeney Todd, from Lyric Opera of Chicago to intimate stagings in theaters of 150 seats and this is the real deal.

KELLY: You're killing me (so to speak), because I have to agree with every word. This is a perfectly cast, perfectly directed, perfectly sung production of a brutally difficult piece. It retains the humor that runs through the text until the very last minute, without trivializing Todd's need for revenge or the seriousness of the vice and corruption of which he's the victim. When things are this perfect, it's all credit to the director, and Rachel Rockwell has not only shaped the work to a fare-thee-well but choreographed it as well. Still, the weight of the show rests on the guy who plays Sweeney, and Chicagoan-manque Gregg Edelman returns from 20 years of Broadway success to play the part for which he was born. Edelman's Sweeney suggests Alan Rickman with a bad haircut (which is to say, Alan Rickman): malevolent, terrifying and yet somehow irresistible.

JONATHAN: And Liz McCartney is "a bloody wonder" as venal, lustful Mrs. Lovett with a big voice. Ultimately, this is NOT a show that belongs in an opera house nor is it one that works better with a high concept, such as the London and New York version in which 12 actors played all the roles and also played all the musical instruments. Sweeney Todd is a lavish Broadway musical and works best when that's respected. It's not just Rockwell, but also musical director Roberta Duchak, conductor Ben Johnson and a superb design team down to the wigs and make-up. The basic scenic concept (by Kevin Depinet) is a two-level set that slashes across the stage diagonally as does the light grid above it.

KELLY: And let's not forget to give credit to the veteran Chicago character actors who make each of the supporting roles unforgettable: Kevin Gudahl, whose evil Judge Turpin seems much more evil for being very low-key about it; George Keating as the mountebank Pirelli (his falsetto is a wonder to hear); and Heidi Kettenring in the thankless part of the old woman who accosts every passerby with the warning, "City on fire!" And Jonah Rawitz, the young man playing Toby (who starts as Pirelli's assistant and becomes Todd's), is no mere "child actor" but an actor, period, and a damn good one. There was a real Sweeney Todd? And the guy who wrote Dangerous Liaisons also wrote the underlying book? How you dazzle us with your in-depth knowledge!

JONATHAN: Playwright Christopher Hampton ADAPTED earlier source material into his Sweeney Todd, just as he adapted into English the 18th Century French play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. As for Sweeney Todd, some final thoughts. It's often viewed as an Early Industrial Age morality tale, but Rockwell makes it a tale of justice perverted, which goes beyond any particular era or economy and is, alas, a universal complaint. Next, a shout out to the producers, the DeSantis-Van Lente clan, who have so gloriously reinvented the theater left to them by their legendary grandpa, producer Tony DeSantis. The quality of this show starts/end with them. Finally, at a top ticket price of $46 (with free parking), Sweeney Todd is one of the best bangs-for-bucks currently available. It runs at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace through Oct. 9.