Monday, September 24, 2012

a night with sweeney todd

When I was sixteen I "wrote" a "novel" about vampires. Of course I did. It was supposed to be a comedy, and it opened on the moon. My writing mentor at the time told me he liked my scenes of suspense and suggested I try to turn it more into a scary story than a funny one. He said, you can be funny and you can be scary, but you can't be both at the same time.

I think what he was really saying was, you're not funny. But I spent years thinking on that statement, that you can be funny and scary but not at the same time.

You can, of course, and a good example of this is playing down at Portland Center Stage. Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street proves that with some good casting and staging, with some big time coordination to pull together all the complex elements of the story and music, you can be scary and touching and tragic and ugly and beautiful and shocking and, yes, funny, all in one.

Sweeney Todd is a hard, hard musical to do. I don't say this from experience, of course, but it's a lot of show - particularly when it comes to the music. Dense, fast-paced and full of crazy harmonies and counterpoint. It's the complicated stuff that's my favorite in Sweeney Todd, and the ensemble cast pulled it off with relish.

I did not mean that as a pun, but now that it's there, I'm leaving it. Speaking of puns, one of the highlights of the show for me was "A Little Priest" which closes the first half. If anyone can pull off punning and make me laugh rather than roll my eyes it's Stephen Sondheim - but what made the number stand out for me was the great chemistry between Sweeney Todd (Aloysius Gigl) and Mrs. Lovett (Gretchen Rumbaugh). They deliver that number with the perfect mix of fiendish glee, and even though what they're punning about is murder and cannibalism, it's also kind of touching the way they enjoy this shared experience.

Both are really good in their roles. Aloysius Gigl plays Sweeney Todd with a balance that makes him sympathetic even as he's slitting throats - well, maybe not while he's in the act but at least while he's brooding over his burning need for revenge. Some Sweeney Todds I've seen have played their parts more on the crazy rage side of things, and that misses some of the complexity that the playwright Christopher Bond wrote into the role when he adapted this old, old story in 1973, and which Sondheim further developed when he created the musical in 1979. Gigl plays Todd in a way that makes him scary and at the same time deeply sad. Gretchen Rumbaugh's Mrs. Lovett doesn't have the benefit of fifteen wrongful years in the poky to give her character sympathy, but her unrequited love for Todd drives her motivation throughout the story as much as her ambition does. Rumbaugh is also quite funny.

The set is nicely depressing and the harsh lighting creates a stark, shadowy world. Costumes got a thumbs-up from Stephen, my resident fashion history expert. At intermission, he said, "I approve of Johanna's dress." That's Rita Markova, pictured below, who sang her part beautifully and with nice humor.

The production is bookended with street scenes of homeless people in what looks to be present day rather than the mid-nineteenth century, where Sweeney Todd takes place. At first I found it jarring when the time period changed as the show began - but thinking it through at intermission, I realized why it worked. Sweeney Todd is presented in the form of a legend. "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," the street folk sing in the introduction. Placing this opening in present day both helped cement the idea of the "lore" aspect of the story and brought a sense of the opposite - of reality - to things. Not to mention bringing home the idea that, as outlandish and horrific as the story of Sweeney Todd is, there are true horrors and true desperation on the streets everyday.

Don't get me wrong. It might make you think, but it's also, all told, a rollicking good time. It plays at the Gerding Theater from now until October 21.


  1. Hey thanks G..I have NEVER seen Sweeny Todd..mainly because I just didn't think it was my kind of thing...but you've made me want to go see it!!!!

  2. One of the things I also liked about the Sweeney casting, is that Gigl, though perhaps younger looking than one might expect, has the wide chest, huge forearms, and overall solidity one could imagine of someone who's survived deportation to Australia and fifteen years hard labour.