Sweeney Todd in Boston: Razor Sharp and Bloody Brilliant

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is right at home in the Hub. This re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical is laced with talent, and delivered with the intensity of a fever dream. Intimate and epic at the same time, “Sweeney Todd” draws its audience into a chilling world of revenge and blood lust — but it does so with scorching wit, and musical dexterity that is a wonder to behold.

The original production of “Sweeney” was big on spectacle. In this production director John Doyle swaps the sprawling streets of London for an intimate parlor room — and the most imposing bookcase you’ve ever seen. The company is made up of ten actors who also serve as the show’s orchestra. Each plays an instrument, some several, and together seamlessly deliver the complex score. You might think the sight of an actor carrying a cello, or a violin, or a trumpet would break all sense of character development. What actually happens is just the opposite, actor-singer-musician meld in a glorious fusion.

As Sweeney, David Hess is menacing one moment, tender and broken the next. His rage at being deported by the lascivious Judge Turpin, his wife and child stolen from him, is etched in every crevice of his face. His razor slashes at the malignant injustice of the world, his sense of right and wrong blinded by fury. Hess has a powerful singing voice, but he pulls it back skillfully to give his featured songs a chilling edge. He’s nothing less than astonishing.

For a show that has a multi-purpose coffin and buckets of blood, it also has an amazing life force — Judy Kaye as the demented pie maker Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney takes his victims down, and Mrs. Lovett serves them up. In her tattered fishnet stockings and black goth wig, Kaye convinces you that her grisly recipe is actually quite practical. She owns the stage, whether she’s cooing the deadpan ballad “By The Sea”, trading barbs with Sweeney in “A Little Priest”, or stomping around with a tuba. Kaye is rightly celebrated as one of our best musical actresses, and after seeing her as Mrs. Lovett you’ll understand why.

There are several key holdovers in Boston’s “Sweeney” from the Tony Award winning Broadway production. Benjamin Magnuson as Anthony and Lauren Molina as Johanna are two of them. They both play cello beautifully, and they both bring a geeky charm to their roles as star crossed lovers. Diana DiMarzio is the other, returning as the Beggar Woman who stalks the stage with a heartbreaking secret — and a piercing clarinet.

The show also gets a nuanced and wickedly funny turn from Keith Buterbaugh in the sometimes thankless role of Judge Turpin. Benjamin Eakeley brings sleazy street smarts to The Beadle, and Edmund Bagnell is haunting as Tobias. He sings “Not While I’m Around” with sweetness and steely resolve and he plays the violin so well that even if he couldn’t sing a note you’d be riveted.
A quick note on the Broadway production. There’s no question that Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris brought a different brand of star quality and sexuality to the lead roles. Their performances are now the stuff of legend. That said, the work of Judy Kaye and David Hess should be seen and appreciated with equal wonder. This is once in a lifetime theatre, and you must experience it for yourself.

“Sweeney Todd” is only at the Colonial Theatre until November 4th. As the company sings so convincingly … “attend the tale.”

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