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Tuneful barbarism

Times Staff Writer

Theater buffs are always waxing nostalgic about the golden age of the Broadway musical, but few have bothered to notice that we’re living in a golden age of Sondheim revivals.

For proof, check out the minimalist “Sweeney Todd” that opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre. Directed and designed by the British theatrical alchemist John Doyle, this Tony-winning chamber version distills the essence of what makes Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s macabre love child an un-categorizable masterpiece.

No, the Ahmanson isn’t the most hospitable environment for such a pared-down “Sweeney.” The trouble isn’t the acoustics. (Microphones more or less take care of that problem, even though lyrics are occasionally lost in a mechanical void.) The issue is the remoteness of the actors, a few of whom seem to think they’ve been asked to perform in a concert, albeit one decorated by the fiendish cartoonist Charles Addams.

When Doyle’s production opened on Broadway in 2005, starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, the leads were allowed a startling amount of intimacy with the audience. That’s not possible here, which is a shame since Judy Kaye, a musical comedy treasure, plays Mrs. Lovett, the purveyor of those suspicious meat pies that have oddly improved since the embittered barber Sweeney Todd (David Hess, less vivid than one would have hoped) rented a room above her shop.

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But despite the cavernous setting and the mixed-bag touring cast, the show’s revitalizing spark hasn’t been extinguished. The imaginative freshness still comes through in this ingenious retelling of razor-wielding Sweeney’s revenge on the town that destroyed his marriage, deported him to Australia and stole his innocent daughter, Johanna (Lauren Molina), before driving him into an unholy alliance with a frowzy, public-health-menacing proprietor.

Doyle’s attention-grabbing concept has the acting company double as the orchestra. This frugal stroke of genius turns the playfully blood-drawing score into a full-bodied dramatic character.

The director repeated this practice in his stylish 2006 Broadway revival of Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company,” though the effect wasn’t as revelatory as it is here. And that’s because “Sweeney Todd” is as devoted to exploring modes of storytelling as it is to bringing to life the penny-dreadful upon which the musical is based. Doyle’s production encourages the audience to “attend the tale” in all its kaleidoscopic shifts, from twisted comedy to tragedy to political satire to Grand Guignol.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about “Sweeney Todd” without mentioning Tim Burton’s slashing film adaptation, which came out last year to somewhat over-the-top critical hosannas. Incisively acted by Johnny Depp as “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the movie was unquestionably a visual marvel. To fully appreciate it, however, you had to accept it on its own strikingly original cinematic terms.

The eye trumped the ear. And while the film had musical apologists extolling Depp’s remarkable phrasing, it was hard to avoid the reality that the vocal level wasn’t much superior to what you’d find in a run-of-the-mill church choir.

What was lost on the big screen was the insidious and often highly ironic ways in which the songs place the saga in thought-provoking quotations marks. After all, the musical’s hand-me-down plot, derived from a contemporary adaptation by playwright Christopher Bond, isn’t where the genius lies. It’s in the maniacally clever collaboration between composer and book writer, who together achieve a perfection of polymorphous style that has been unmatched since the work premiered in 1979.

Harold Prince’s original Broadway production drew out the musical’s Brechtian nature, emphasizing the Industrial Age horrors of sooty London as well as the work’s self-conscious theatricality. Subsequent productions have aimed more at thriller chills, focusing on the demented relationship between two middle-aged nobodies who together reap so much sensational carnage.

Doyle lets the story unfold onstage like a scary dream, which he refuses to over-interpret. He’s entranced by the sulfurous atmosphere and wants to whet the audience’s latent fears with a few choice images and a host of hypnotic sounds.

A coffin, resting front and center, becomes part of the theatrical furniture -- one minute it’s a platform for standing on, the next its dressed with a tablecloth for dining. Metal shelves carrying the contents of Mrs. Lovett’s shoddy livelihood are stacked vertiginously high. And the stage itself is made up of wooden slats through which the most diabolical shafts of light are shot.

The musical instruments become crucial accouterments of the characters. When she’s not defiantly celebrating with a tuba, Mrs. Lovett is tinkling orchestra bells to underscore devious plot points. Johanna, who Molina delightfully portrays as a strung-out neurotic, shields herself behind a cello, which makes perfect sense now that she’s the ward of the lustfully malevolent Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh). Her romance with Anthony (Benjamin Magnuson), the kind sailor who rescued Sweeney on his return to England, takes place amid a dulcet interlude that includes the violin strains of Tobias (a sprightly Edmund Bagnell), the doltish child who unwittingly gets caught up in the daily operation of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s charnel house.

Hess’ Sweeney has a strong, sonorous voice, but his performance lacks fire. One has to deduce that he’s roiling with fury inside. He recoils with howling shock at what’s become of his world, but there’s something strangely indistinct about the title character.

Nothing could be further from the case than Kaye’s hot-to-trot Mrs. Lovett, a woman who will go to felonious extremes for a good man, a flush bank account and a little respectability. Dressed in a black waitress uniform with sequins after business picks up, she’s like a down-market Hyacinth Bucket from the British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances.”

And what a pleasure to hear her witty renditions of such Sondheim classics as “The Worst Pies in London,” “A Little Priest” and “Not While I’m Around.” The clarity and fullness of her singing are particularly appreciated after the movie’s skimpiness in this area, but even more impressive is the way she mines unexpected humor from lyrics that are already famously funny.

But superb as Kaye is, the real star here is Doyle’s daring directorial revision, which transforms the show into a sinister collage of almost unconscious fluidity. It’s more a deconstruction than a definitive representation, but it demonstrates the supple richness of a masterwork that not even a tepid Sweeney can diminish.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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‘Sweeney Todd’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: April 6

Price: $25 to $90

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes


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