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Photo Credit :: Paul Kolnik
Arts & Entertainment
Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O'Neill Theater
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
December 22, 2005 
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There’s a very good reason that latecomers to the revival of Sweeney Todd now playing at the Eugene O’Neill will not be seated until forty minutes into the show – and that’s because from the moment the curtain rises, the audience is hypnotized. You couldn’t move for a fire warden, let alone a latecomer. Once that razor-slashed indigo curtain rises to reveal the brilliantly barren and dystopic set, you are rendered complicit in the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street. Using only ten black dining chairs, a coffin, and a heaven-high open pantry laden with dishes for piemaking, and working with a palette of blacks, blues, whites, and – yes, of course – reds, and with props as elemental as a red knitted scarf, blood-spattered lab coats and white sheets, this evocatively-staged revival immediately conveys the corruption and depravity of that nefarious miasma, 18th-century London.

Led by Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone, the cast of ten, all of them working at the very top of their game, plunges the audience into a city still reeling from the plague years as the industrial revolution floods the streets with beggars, thieves, prostitutes and criminals. This is the city to which Sweeney Todd returns after fifteen years of incarceration in Australia, a city ruled by fear and disease. And with Todd’s homecoming to his neighborhood, where his barber shop still remains, and where Mrs. Lovett, like a black widow, lies in wait, the horror commences with an alacrity that hardly allows for a breath and certainly not a movement – and hence the absolute stillness in the audience.

And even after forty minutes of mesmeric splendor, it just gets better – or worse, as Charles Dickens might argue, writing, “The air was impregnated with filthy odours… Drunken men and women....wallowing in filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows....cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed....errands.” This is the world which is immediately communicated in John Doyle’s thrilling reimagining of what is arguably Sondheim’s masterpiece. And given the images which have populated our television screens over this past year, the planet’s annus horribilis, it is no small wonder that much of the horror which unfolds on the stage seems instantly recognizable. With mendacious leaders and corrupt judges, and hypocrisy thick in the air, you would be easily forgiven for thinking, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

This is musical theatre at its most provocative and thoughtful, and a production a marvel to witness. Not only thespians, the actors inhabit their roles musically as well (Patti Lupone with a tuba is a sight not to be missed by any self-respecting theatre queen), the group of them forming an orchestra as powerful as orchestras three times their size. And when the songs come, songs now so familiar from more than twenty years on the cabaret circuit, they are spellbinding in their visceral connection to the plight of these characters.

Given this production’s haunting power, it’s no wonder that at show’s end, the fate of Tobias (brilliantly played by Manoel Felciano), alone in a madhouse, appears to echo that which confronts all of us in the audience. Will the last sane person on the planet please turn out the light?