Jonathan Kent’s production of Sweeney Todd, which plays at the Adelphi Theatre through September 22nd, dismisses the show’s original Victorian-era setting, choosing instead to place the production in the Great Depression. Gone is the Steampunk set design, present in the 1979 production and in many subsequent revivals, though a version of the famous rotating box remains. Also dispensed with is the traditional white makeup of the original production, meaning the cast no longer resembles walking corpses. The wailing siren, heard each time a murder takes place on stage, is no longer the wail of a steam engine, but a call back to work for Londoners happy to have employment. As they labor, they gossip, attempting to learn what they can about the cannibalistic serial killer who has apparently just been stopped. The prologue and epilogue, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” thus becomes a way of passing along information- between the people onstage, yes, but also from the actors to the audience. Dispensing with the original production design and staging concept is not a new idea, though this conception was altogether more successful than others I’ve seen. The 2005 John Doyle-helmed Broadway revival, for example, dressed its cast in quasi-contemporary attire, did away with the traditional set, large cast, and, perhaps most notably, the entire orchestra, creating a “chamber Sweeney” which was interesting but lacking in the grandeur demanded by the score. In Kent’s production, a cast of thirty fills in the set’s multiple levels well and, for the most part, sings Stephen Sondehim’s difficult music more than adequately. There is a moment when the female chorus sounds like a group of dying cats, but it works, the screeches of the women reminiscent of both the siren and the screams of Sweeney’s victims.
Luke Brady, as the romantic sailor Anthony, is the biggest disappointment of the night. When we can hear him, he sounds pretty, though he lacks passion in his performance. Peter Polycarpu’s Beadle Bamford is strange- he is well-acted and well-sung, but the two somehow don’t fit together. Michael Ball’s Sweeney is very good, but the highlight of the night is Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett. She somehow manages to combine the horror of her Harry Potter Professor Umbridge with the hilarity of her Shakespeare in Love Nurse to create a Lovett who is shrewd, hysterical, and utterly frightening. She became increasingly unhinged throughout the show, but when bringing Sweeney back to earth after his “Epiphany,” she attains a new level of creepy.
The Depression-era setting becomes a metaphor for Sweeney’s psychological state. Happily the audience does not share his mood; this is a very good production of a very, very good show.