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Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in Sweeney Todd.Photo: Amy Arbus

At last, sex and death, and not an instant too soon. New York theater lately has felt—even by its own mopey standards—bereft of thrills and passion. Now two musicals stoke our primal urges, basking in perversion. Squint your eyes just so, and the place doesn’t look like an overpriced waxworks after all.

The news that a British director had dared to stage Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s bloody masterpiece, with just ten actors playing all the roles—and all the musical instruments—left me dubious, the scars from earlier transatlantic updates of American classics still fresh. In less than 60 seconds, John Doyle’s production dispels all fears.

Our hero makes his first appearance by rising from a black six-sided coffin. Michael Cerveris glowers in a knee-length black leather coat, bald head gleaming; from someplace deep and murky, he unleashes a booming baritone: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd / He served a dark and a vengeful god.” As he sings, beams of light erupt through the wall behind him. It is as badass as a Broadway entrance gets.

The coffin, we notice, is in the middle of a seedy lunatic asylum infested with crazies and doctors in lab coats. By setting the show’s action here, with no scene changes and few props, Doyle is transparently ripping off Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade—and it works. After all, the musical’s about a pair of psychos: Todd, the “demon barber of Fleet Street,” sings to his silver razors as he plots how to rescue his long-lost daughter and seek revenge on her captor, the vile Judge Turpin; his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (Patti LuPone), wants him to give up his vengeance-mongering to live an honest life, killing drifters and serving them as meat pies in her shop downstairs.

But the asylum frame, and the wonderfully bizarre idea to have the actors double as the orchestra, also captures the show’s giddy theatricality. From his coffin, Todd continues, “What happened then—well, that’s the play / And he wouldn’t want us to give it away.” As the barber slices and dices his way toward the brutal finale, Doyle’s spare production pops off gruesome laughs and potent stage images—for instance, the small white casket that serves as the barber chair and, when cradled by Todd, the memory of his baby daughter: Patently the man is in love with death.

Doyle has had to compromise here and there, sacrificing a singing voice or two for the sake of instrumental skill. Also, the compact staging robs the show of the broad social underpinnings evoked by the grand machinery of Harold Prince’s original 1979 production. Still, the show’s actor-singer-musicians remind us that theater’s allure lies in the chance to witness firsthand not just talent but practiced prowess. The Judge (Mark Jacoby) and the Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) are captivating when they round off the phrases they’ve been trading on their trumpets to resume planning the seduction of young Johanna. Particularly impressive is Manoel Felciano, who proves as adept on the violin, clarinet, and piano as he does in the role of gentle, unstable Tobias, the servant boy who becomes newly focal in Doyle’s production. Though Marxists will miss the class-war angle of Prince’s production, Doyle does evoke an acute private terror. Cerveris’s Sweeney Todd is a monster, but one with a wounded look—a fallen angel.

The tiny orchestra may spell bad news for people who like their Sondheim tunes bombastic, but the restrained, spare scoring is a fortune for those of us who revere his lyrical genius. Savor every syllable as the funny LuPone sings, “We have some shepherd’s pie peppered / with actual shepherd / on top.” Thanks to Sarah Travis’s inspired orchestration, the second-act reprise of the ballad “Johanna” remains achingly lovely. Sondheim has been knocked for decades as cerebral and chilly, a reputation that may need a fresh look. In recent years, no two Broadway musicals have been more viscerally and emotionally satisfying than last season’s unnerving Assassins and this sanguinary gem. His crown should fit more snugly now.

The final mark of Doyle’s triumph is a payoff that owes more to The Usual Suspects than to Marat/Sade. You realize in the end the asylum setting isn’t just a cute device; it’s a way to evoke the very heart of the work. From Todd’s bravura entrance on, Doyle illustrates how, in madmen’s brains, the dead still walk—an inspired description of Todd’s vengeful mind. Not that Sondheim (and librettist Hugh Wheeler) need the help, but Doyle’s last grace note, one I won’t give away, perfectly illustrates the show’s closing condemnation of its audience. The gesture, like all that precedes it, sends you out into the night spooked and elated.

Forty blocks away, the Public Theater has likewise fallen into the clutches of Eros and Thanatos. There you can see two vignettes set in medieval Japan, in which cheating lovers kill each other as they climax. These vignettes are short, which is good, because they don’t make any sense.

Fortunately for writer-composer Michael John LaChiusa, his See What I Wanna See has plenty more to recommend it. He has adapted two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa into a pair of appealing, if slightly wobbly, one-acts. The first transports the premise of Rashomon to fifties New York, as various parties try to explain an episode of sex and death in Central Park, one that may or may not constitute rape and murder. The music suggests that the composer has listened to plenty of Henry Mancini—plenty of Dizzy Gillespie, too. It’s taut and darkly compelling, even though as a nightclub singer turned victim/vixen Idina Menzel needs more fatale in her femme.

The second piece, in which a priest who has lost his faith after an unnamed tragedy very much akin to 9/11 sets out to expose the hollowness of all belief, shows an unexpected grace. LaChiusa’s writing here can be as sincere as the priest’s lament, “I watched the city fall / In silver clouds / Consuming crowds / Of unsuspecting souls,” and as funny as the argument by his aunt (the reliably terrific Mary Testa) that there can’t be a God because He hasn’t punished “those sonovabitches who write all those stupid new TV shows.” In what strikes me as the first post-post-9/11 play (about the consequences of the consequences of that day), LaChiusa does something rare and admirable, treating the possibility of belief with dignity. His fine, humane writing benefits from Henry Stram’s wonderfully sensitive performance as the priest.

One lesson of LaChiusa’s affecting play is that we see only what we want to see; belief requires effort. This week, the injunction certainly applies. Despite their rewards, neither LaChiusa’s show nor Sweeney Todd is easy to watch. They can be rich and satisfying, but only for people willing to tax their imaginations, to complete the act of creation. That sense of engagement, unique to the theater, always strikes me as the best reason to keep the doors open and the lights turned on. It’s why I’m willing to sit through unending nights of feckless, ugly, cynical misfires to experience a week like this one.

Attend the history of Sweeney Todd: Stephen Sondheim is only the latest in a long line of playwrights exploiting one of London’s seediest legends. The infamous barber’s first British appearance was in an 1846 “penny dreadful”–one of those serialized Victorian horror stories–under the title “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” by Thomas Prest. He probably borrowed from a (purportedly) true French account of a Parisian barber and his baker accomplice. Pulp playwright George Dibdin Pitt soon lifted himself, turning it into a melodrama subtitled The Fiend of Fleet Street. The next century saw dozens of theatrical productions, a movie version, even a ballet–and Christopher Bond’s straight play Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which Stephen Sondheim first saw in 1973.

Sweeney Todd
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

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