Sunday, December 14, 2008

*Sweeney* reactions

Startling, funny, haunting. Opens with Toby in straitjacket.
Merritt David Janes remarkably different than he was in *The Wedding Singer* -- lowered voice, often lit from above so that his brow shadowed his lower face. Really only allowed himself to laugh in the Act One ending number, "A Little Priest" (a playful duet with Mrs. Lovett about the taste of lawyer- and politician-flesh, e.g.).
Lots of harsh lighting effects. Much of the singing done presentationally, straight out to the audience.
Sweeney's first entrance involves sitting up inside a coffin, a la Dracula.

Brian Ritter, operations and technical director at the Fox, shared a good analogy during intermission (and he remembers the Spokane Opera productions of *Sweeney* going back to circa 1989 and 1999): You tend to forget that these actors are carrying around musical instruments in the same way that, at a foreign film, you forget after awhile that you're reading subtitles.

In the same way that "Pretty Women" is simultaneously beautiful and creepy (melodically and in context) because it's being sung about the same woman, Johanna, but by her lustful guardian and her righteously indignant father -- similarly, this production gave Mrs. Lovett's comic vision of future domestic bliss with Sweeney, "By the Sea," an extra edge by juxtaposing her delighted imagings with her pulling out of a bucket one repulsive/scary surgical tool after another. (The pleasures that capitalism brings are earned through the sufferings of others.)

What *Sweeney* veterans remember, of course, is the gruesomeness. And so Bobo didn't really believe Carrie Cimma when she went on and on about a) how funny, and b) how loving this production is. But she's right. Anthony loves Johanna, Sweeney loved his wife and daughter, Mrs. Lovett is attracted in her way to Sweeney ... it's an ugly world we live in, but not devoid of passion and compassion. And Cimma herself — sauntering about in her degraded French maid's outfit — provided a lot of the comic (and naughty) bits herself.

"We all deserve to die," sings Sweeney, at his most sardonic, in "Epiphany." For Bobo, that helped explain this production's small white coffin, often carried about as if to emphasize around the time of Johanna's near-death (Sweeney is about to slit his own daughter's throat, when he's interrupted) that even such an innocent soul as she is still someone, like the rest of us, who is a despicable sinner.

For all the crash-cues and shock effects of light and sound, director John Doyle uses the simplest of effects at some junctures: a boom! of light and sound at a victim's death, and then silence, and then all we can hear is ... the slow pouring of blood from out of one bucket and into another.

Sweeney, the "Ballad" tells us, "serves a dark and a vengeful god." But he's also a kind of vengeful Jehovah figure: "Swing your razor wide! / Sweeney, hold it to the skies. / Freely flows the blood of those who moralize."
The Sweeneys of the world may be slightly crazy and inconvenient, but they rid of those who think that they know better than everyone else.

A powerful experience. Sitting in the Fox, it felt as if Spokane was getting some world-class theater. (I know, I know, this is the non-Equity second national tour. But the concept was a Tony-winner.) You just sort of gaped at the talent on display on that stage.

(Photos: from the first national tour of *Sweeney,* and from a 3/3/08 New York Post article on John Doyle)

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