Everyone Does It, If Seldom As Well

Blog entry
Authored by
11 October, 2007

I had the great pleasure of seeing Sweeney Todd at ACT this week. It was actually my second time - I was so amazed the first time that I wanted to see it again. I'm glad I did (although I had a better view the first time).

There's been plenty written about this production (including the SF Chronicle review), but it was a revelation to see the intimate, intense performance, all the actors onstage performing the music as they sang and acted.

This production gave me the shivers (great show shivers, not mad barber with a razor shivers) - so many elements enhancing the whole:

  • the opening moment - the first instrument and vocal (I'm trying not to give anything away);
  • the physicality of Sweeney's sudden appreciation for Mrs. Lovett during "A Little Priest;"
  • the flashes of anger and madness in Johanna's character (Lauren Molina is the best Johanna I've seen - she gets the performance just right)
  • the interplay of all the actors as characters and musicians - watching them standing or sitting off to the side, watching the main characters in a scene; seeing them switch instruments, Judge Turpin playing trumpet with one hand and cymbal with another; seeing the Beadle switch off seamlessly with Pirelli on piano;
  • the intensity of Sweeney's pain and despair in "Epiphany" ("no, I HAD him!");
  • the musical segue into "Green Finch and Linnet Bird;"
  • the intertwining of the last moments of "Ladies in their Sensitivities" with Johanna and Anthony singing "Kiss Me", the Beadle and the Judge back behind the young lovers;
  • the uses made of the two-story-tall shelves in various scenes;
  • Judy Kaye's subtle and revealing "Wait;"
  • the blood-soaked lab coats;
  • the subtle shift in who sings what in the final number;

... really, too many awe-filled moments to list.

And attending the show called me to do two things: be fully present and aware - pay attention - rather than half-hearing the songs as background music, and read the lyrics. (I love Sondheim's words, and I thoroughly love his duets, with two characters singing over each other, but you miss half the words.) Reading the lyrics, I learned that Johanna's reticule is "the only thing my mother gave me". Paying closer attention to the words, I realized Sweeney doesn't think everyone deserves to die because everyone is evil - rather, "the lives of the wicked should be made brief - for the rest of us, death will be a relief", which casts his actions in a very different light. Listening closely to "Pretty Women," I delighted in the poetry of the rhymes, the echoes and interplay of the wordsounds.

It's funny, it took me years and years to warm to this show, and now I'm just amazed and overwhelmed by what an extraordinary work it is.

This production gave me even more ways to see that.