Roughly 2 million years ago, the human brain underwent a tremendous growth spurt, and thus was born the potential for oddball ideas. Then, sometime in the late 1970s, Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim set to work turning Christopher Bond’s play about a morose, revengeful, murderous, cannibalistic barber into…a musical.
But damn if the creepy thing doesn’t work. Much of the credit goes to Sondheim’s music, which eschews every cliché while not quite sacrificing those by turns lovely and jaunty melodies that people demand of musicals. And then there’s the boatload of alluring, goth-flavored details that had Tim Burton of Beetlejuice and Batman fame salivating at the prospect of doing a film version of Sweeney.
Sorry, girls: In exchange for Johnny Depp, you get Doug Schneider. A veteran Charlottesville singer and actor, Schneider plays Sweeney Todd (a.k.a. Benjamin Barker), who in 1846 arrives back in London after being sentenced to exile in Australia by a corrupt judge, and confronts—to say the least—his past. The middle-aged Schneider, with his compact, sturdy frame and bald head, looks rather like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, sans nicks and cuts, yet with a steely visage that seems to express some sort of hidden physical affliction. Are we suggesting that Schneider also has Willis’ limited emotional range? Well, yes, but to be absolutely fair to Schneider, Sweeney Todd is no Hamlet. And Schneider’s talent kicks in when his singing is required. Plus, he has a knack for totally tuning in to his appointed choreography.
Schneider gets some solid help from the rest of the cast, including Lydia Underwood Horan, who works her tail off in her every scene as meat pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett, and Live Arts veteran Mark Valahovic, who is well cast as the corrupt judge’s cohort, Beadle Bamford.
Director John Gibson, along with costume designer Tricia Emlet and set designers Lian LaRussa (who by day is a C-VILLE graphic designer) and Michael Wenrich, also no doubt salivated at the prospect of working on Sweeney. Gibson’s recent productions of Macbeth and A Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, were laden with visual atmosphere, and Sweeney offers opportunities galore to do more of the same. Gibson’s lavish use of props and often multilayered staging (“Where should I focus my eyes?” you can almost hear the audience thinking) lend weight to the musical’s strangeness but don’t always clarify it or make it palatable. He comes dangerously close at times to assuming that everyone in the audience is a Sweeney connoisseur, or at least has studied a plot summary beforehand. As a result, the musical comes across as more complex and Brechtian than it has any right to be.
Moreover, one can’t help but get the impression that Gibson’s attention to the visual aspects came at the expense of other considerations—namely, the somewhat distracting fact that some of the all-American cast have English accents, and some don’t.
But really, there’s not a whole lot to complain about. Compared to the conservative approach to musicals at UVA’s Heritage Theatre Festival over the years, it’s a relief to have a director who’s in your face, taking chances, and gunning more than aiming to please.
Let’s call this one pretty close to a bull’s-eye.