Off The Wall's Sweeney Todd

Jul. 25, 2009
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As I understand it, back in the mid-1800’s, the predominant form of narrative home entertainment was the novel. In England at the time, novels cost a full shilling. Those without the benefit of that kind of disposable income could pay substantially less for serialized bits of fiction that were far cheaper to produce. Often referred to as penny dreadfuls, the tiny weekly serialized pamphlets often targeted British teenage lads with ghastly stories of crime and adventure. One such dreadful told the story of a homicidal barber who would kill his clientele by in a barber's chair The bodies were then disposed of by being used in meat pies by the woman next door.  The String of Pearls introduced the character of Sweeney Todd. Hugely successful in its time, the James Malcolm Rymer story quickly became urban legend through word of mouth, finding itself into British theatres for much of the rest of the century.  

In 1936, nearly 90 years after the penny serial ended, Sweeney Todd was still popular enough in British culture that a film adaptation was produced starring Tod Slaughter in the title role (of course, that wasn’t his real name, he was born with the name Norman Slaughter . . .)  Some 43 years after the film had come out, Stephen Sondheim decided that the story would be an interesting subject for a musical. The guy who did Gypsy and West Side Story decided to tackle the story of a serial killer. In a strange second life for a story that had originally been written for working-class teenage boys in the mid-19th century, it would live on adapted into a format that would appeal to people with enough disposable income to afford a ticket to a Broadway musical.

Possessing a dark feel not entirely common to Broadway shows, the musical serves as a welcome contrast to the bright, cheery, happy-ending style of story that seems to define standard Broadway musicals. A musical tragedy with some very haunting songs, this is one of the three or four musicals that I actually love. (Like Woyzeck and Cabaret) Though I’ve seen the an old VHS release of the original Broadway cast recording and the recent Tim Burton film adaptation, I’ve never seen a live performance of the musical. Dale Gutzman’s Off The Wall Theatre opened a production of Sweeney Todd this weekend. In theory, a production of the dark musical in the intimate confines of the Off The Wall Theatre could end up bringing a kind of emotional immediacy to the story not found on the glowing screen of a VHS tape fed through Trinitron in the mid-‘90’s or a glowing screen on the East Side under the influence of Tim Burton.


The Dale Gutzman/David Roper set sits at the head of a crowded theatre (ticket sales for the show have been very good.) It’s a three-tiered affair with the band sitting directly atop the meat pie shop with the barber shop being on the side on a level somewhere between. It’s a realitvely ingenious use of space that is overpowered by the size of Gutzman’s cast. People move around the space in period costume . . . filling the limited space of the set and making this particular version of  mid-19th century London look very, very crowded. The near sell-out crowds in the small space actually work to the advantage of the play’s atmosphere . . . we really get a feeling that the place is packed—totally overcrowded. As a result, there’s an immensity to the mood even in the tiny space of the Off The Wall Theatre.

Aside from the mood, the production itself is actually kind of uninspired. There are some really great musical moments here featuring some really good voices, but there’s very little spark of genius beyond a very basic presentation of a really good, really dark musical.

On the surface, the story is a classic epic tragedy. With all the bloodshed and vengeance, it’s positively Shakespearian. The thing that really separates the story from other things that have come before it is the fact that it’s essentially about a serial killer . . .  which has been covered before in Three Penny Opera, but that didn’t really explore the psychology of the killer. The brilliant thing here is that we get to see the genesis of a serial killer. While both Johnny Depp (in the film version) and Len Cariou (in the original Broadway production) played the role in a traditional, brooding style. The traditional way to play Todd is as a brooding, tortured anti-hero who schemes to kill the judge who ruined his life. The challenge is to present the character in a sympathetic light that is also interesting. You don’t have to go in a brooding anti-hero direction with the character. There are plenty of ways to develop an interesting homicidal character and Off The Wall’s Robert Hirschi hasn’t been challenged here to give the character any more than the traditional, dark and brooding personality. It’s a shame because an intimate, little production has an opportunity to explore a more sophisticated portrayal of a man who chooses to kill his enemies in a barber’s chair. Much of the rest of the musical plays out like this, never really going for anything aside from a traditional presentation of the musical, which is fine, but not quite as effective as it would’ve  been had Gutzman decided to take a few chances with the show. Yes, it was a very ambitious idea to bring a big-scale epic musical like this to such a small stage, but the ambition doesn’t go any further than the production’s basic parameters. 

Aside from its overall lack of inspiration, this is an exceedingly competent production that locks its audience into the dark reality of the performance. There are some lovely voices here. David Flores and Robert Hirschi’s interaction during Pretty Women is particularly good. As is the romance between Evan Mayer as sailor Anthony Hope and Todd’s daughter Johanna (played here by Alyson Grauer.) It’s an enjoyable production that doesn’t seem to aspire to much more than being enjoyable.

Off The Wall’s Production of Sweeney Todd runs through August 8th.


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