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Did Mrs. Lovett always carry an umbrella at the end of Sweeney Todd? Christine Baranski totes one at the Kennedy Center—a lacy, black, nonutilitarian parasol that would be useless in a downpour but might ward off a stray sunbeam, should the show’s eerie lighting scheme let one sneak past the sooty pipes and ductwork of the stage’s 19th-century London.
Ordinarily, the umbrella wouldn’t have caught my eye amid all the carnage wrought by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his giddily amoral, pie-baking accomplice, but when Baranski strode to the right side of the stage in Sweeney’s final moment and turned to face her co-star, Brian Stokes Mitchell, an odd thought struck me: Standing there sideways, with the umbrella resting on her right shoulder, she looked remarkably like an artist’s study for Dot, the largest figure in Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche apres-midi a l’ile de la Grande Jatte and the leading lady in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George.
Now, this may have been entirely accidental, but because Sunday will be joining Sweeney in repertory in a couple of weeks, it’s natural to wonder if costumer David C. Woolard is drawing a subtle connection between the two Sondheim heroines—one a baker, the other a baker’s wife. Both, after all, are in love with romantically inattentive men—”an artist with a knife” in Mrs. Lovett’s case, a more conventional artist in Dot’s. Both women sing brightly of imagined outings (to the sea in Sweeney, to the follies in Sunday), only to have their distracted sweethearts dash such thoughts by obsessing over work. Could the characters’ singing ranges be comparable, as well? Without listening to the original cast albums, I can only guess, but Broadway’s Dot, Bernadette Peters, will soon star as Mama Rose in Gypsy, a role in which Broadway’s Mrs. Lovett, Angela Lansbury, triumphed a while back, so they can’t be too far removed. Could there be more to this connection than meets the ear? We’ll see, I suppose.
By now you’ve probably heard that the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim celebration got off to a rousing start—greeted at Sweeney’s press opening by roars of approval at each act’s finale, by show-slowing ovations at the conclusion of several numbers. You may also have heard that Mitchell, who plays the throat-slitting barber, and Baranski, who plays the neighbor who bakes his victims into meat pies, are not just good but downright triumphant—hilarious in their comic numbers and reasonably wrenching elsewhere, not to mention fuller-voiced than most of the folks who’ve preceded them in the roles.
If you’ve tried to get tickets, you’ll also have heard that those who don’t already have them for this first installment of the Sondheim lovefest are flat out of luck. They’re gone, as are all but a few of the seats for Company and the vast majority for Sunday, the two shows that join Sweeney in repertory this month. (The second rep—A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Passion—has better availability, but don’t count on that lasting, once a gotta-score-something mentality sets in at the box office.)
What you may not have heard is how much has been achieved on a tight budget ($10 million for all six shows, an amount that would barely suffice for one Broadway mounting). Sweeney, with its rolling platforms and bridges that jut back to the deepest reaches of the stage, looks gargantuan at the Eisenhower Theater, effectively putting the grandness back in the show’s guignol after area mountings that have made a case for the story in more intimate terms. Certainly, there’s no sense of design values being compromised by monetary constraints. The atmospherics—deep shadows courtesy of Howell Binkley, towering industrial rot by Derek McLane—are impressively gloomy. At times, the show’s questing romantic, Anthony (Hugh Panaro), appears to be blocks away from his beloved Johanna (Celia Keenan-Bolger)—which makes you fear all the more for them both.
The presence of those two singers and their accomplished cohorts—all the principals have significant Broadway and off-Broadway credits—also attests to the project’s ambitions. This Sweeney is pretty much Broadway-ready—a significant accomplishment given the tight deadlines, overlapping rehearsals, and multiple directors at work on the six shows. That Christopher Ashley’s staging is also nuanced, if never very surprising, counts under the circumstances as a bonus. Presumably, the festival’s planners wanted a strong opener, and that desire probably precluded anything overt in the way of directorial experimentation, but Ashley makes a virtue of concentrating on the basics—character and clarity—and reaps the benefits of having two terrific stars in leading roles.
Mitchell’s basso rumble—he can whisper with more force than many singers can belt with—is every bit as impressive as Baranski’s drop-dead comic timing. And when the two snap together—as in the transitional moment when he swings his razor high at the end of a murderous anthem titled “Epiphany,” ready for slaughter and basking in applause, only to be one-upped by the guffaw that greets her unexpectedly offhand reading of her next line—well, musical theater doesn’t get much better. And that moment is representative of the slashing turns between horror and comedy the production manages to negotiate effortlessly all evening.
When the show gives itself over entirely to tragedy in the final half-hour, the staging isn’t quite as persuasive; the script sends everyone rushing about, and the director follows suit, making the strewing of corpses seem a bit haphazard just before curtain. But that’s not enough to undo an evening that offers both creditable performances and insights into characters who’ve grown perhaps overly familiar to Sondheim fans.
It had never occurred to me, for instance, that the pragmatic Mrs. Lovett might be crazier than the clearly-round-the-bend Mr. Todd, but it had to the director and, happily, the thought turns out to be useful to the production. Just watch the alarmed sideways glances Mitchell shoots at Baranski as she’s cawing like a seagull in her Act 2 ditty “By the Sea.” He, remember, has already offed dozens of barbershop customers—and has fits of rage that would get him committed in a flash if anyone besides Mrs. Lovett ever saw them. Still, her belligerent chirpiness worries him, and his nonplused reaction isn’t just priceless, it establishes that he still has a tether on reality, which lends unaccustomed force to the class criticism (“There’s the one staying put in his proper place/And the one with his foot in the other one’s face”) that he spouts as justification for serial killing.
In short, though this Sweeney Todd is in most respects conventional, providing the usual thrills and laughs for audiences who come to it fresh, it won’t bore those who’ve seen multiple productions and know the Sondheim oeuvre well. And now comes the best part for those who’ve followed the composer’s career: the chance to compare shows in close proximity and note the sorts of connections (whether they turn out to be intentional or accidental) that I mentioned earlier. Sondheim has made a positive fetish of not repeating himself in terms of subject matter or approach, but with the double casting of actors in two or more evenings, and an audience able to see as many as three shows in a single weekend, patrons won’t be able to help finding thematic through-lines and compositional parallels—and ultimately understanding the works better.
During one of Broadway’s periodic creative droughts some 15 years ago, I clipped and filed a newspaper article, and the other day I read it again for the first time in more than a decade. It was a proposal by New York critic Linda Winer that, with lots of Broadway theaters sitting empty, one should be turned over to someone with the wherewithal to create a Sondheim repertory company. Many issues would have to be resolved, she acknowledged. “Should there be one permanent company of actors, or, more realistically, a flexible ensemble that allows for specific casting?…Should the [Broadway] stagings of ‘Company’ and ‘Follies’ be duplicated—or new versions made? Would the venture devalue future revivals around the country? Or make the shows more valuable because they’re alive?”
She didn’t ask other questions that the folks at the KenCen have clearly had to ponder in mounting even a brief, summerlong repertory—about stars, about funding, about audience receptivity to lesser-known works. And oddly, it seems not to have occurred to Winer that a Sondheim rep might pay dividends beyond the simple entertainment value of individual musicals that she’d enjoyed and wanted to see again. Ticket sales at the KenCen—where the composer’s hits are selling solid and the less celebrated shows still have tickets—suggest that a lot of people are approaching the Sondheim Celebration with a similar mind-set.
Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. This Sweeney Todd is great fun. But alone, it’s just a show. What makes it intriguing is that whiff of something more you sense when Baranski turns toward Mitchell at the end and her profile disappears behind a curtain with Stephen Sondheim’s oversized signature scrawled in the exact spot where she was standing.
Intentional or not, there’s a cue there. Keep your eye on that umbrella. CP