SHAVING GRACE

After a successful run last season at Theater Works' small Glendale playhouse, Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's story of the razor-wielding barber who cuts throats as his part in the meat-pie business, is now in Herberger Theater Center's Center Stage. Director David Wo has brought some members of the original Glendale cast and a large chorus to the downtown venue, and the extra room helps. Sweeney Todd can fill every nook and cranny of the largest theatre with its bombastic tragedy.

If you didn't catch the show in Glendale--or even if you did--it's worth seeing. To borrow a line from another Sondheim production, "Art isn't easy," and even the sometimes-pretentious Sondheim manages to let himself go and have a tragic good time with Sweeney Todd. The lyricist/composer usually doesn't concern himself with such 19th-century emotions as revenge--Sondheim characters usually smolder and pout rather than take action, but lack of action is not a problem here.

Sondheim and Broadway producer Harold Prince have both denied that the work is an opera, but almost all of Sweeney Todd is sung. And what makes the show so glorious is just what opera does so well--it sets the characters on a collision course, then lets the music crank up and drag them to their destinies.

When the show opened 15 years ago, audiences and Sondheim watchers shook their heads. Once again, nobody could hum the score. Despite the composer's increasing stature over the past three decades, the only Billboard hit he's ever had is "Send In the Clowns." Sondheim started off as a lyricist in the late 1950s with West Side Story and Gypsy; some fans wish he were still penning similar classics.

But Sweeney Todd does contain two hummable numbers that are sometimes performed out of the context of the show: "Pretty Women" and "Not While I'm Around." Sondheim can't stage a one-layer, simple emotion, and the setting of "Pretty Women" is as ironic a piece of musical theatre as you'll ever see. Sweeney shaves his enemy, Judge Turpin, during the duet, and the two men exchange fleeting, poetic impressions of the opposite sex. The audience has a choice: Sit back and wallow in the gorgeous song or perch on the edge of the seat with eyes glued to that wicked razor.

Sweeney Todd is a surprisingly flexible show--with its built-in parody of opera, roles can be played anywhere from the straight to the broadly comic. The show's plot gives each character some minimal motivation, but good actors can have a field day nuancing characterizations that switch routinely from parody to melodrama and back again.

Kevin Hemstreet as Sweeney has a remarkable stage presence, and conveys a threat of violence even without his weapon of choice. Suzanne Hickey as Mrs. Lovett is a chattering magpie to Sweeney's tense hulk, and she lightened up the grisly premise of the show.

Gregory Jaye and Debra M. Qualtire reprise their parts as the young couple in love, and though the pair is meant to be a satire--Sondheim really isn't capable of going back to his West Side Story days--the two end up sidetracking the show. The obviously overage actors can't convey even a momentary illusion of love, so the numbers expressing their undying devotion become tedious, one-joke propositions.

But Sweeney Todd is considered by many to be Sondheim's masterpiece. Unlike most of his other work--bored New Yorkers bickering--it has characters and a plot big enough to be more than a tempest in a teapot.

 
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