Since the start of his long, illustrious career as a composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim has been intent on pushing the boundaries of the form and the content of the Broadway musical. Nowhere is that more evident than in his bloody brilliant 1979 masterwork, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
True, there are two parallel love stories at the center of the show, just like so many of the musicals by his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. But the romance is overshadowed by the throat-slitting homicides of this gory revenge tale. And then there is the cannibalism, for the corpses of the title character’s victims are baked into meat pies for public consumption.
No wonder audiences were taken aback by the subject matter of Sweeney Todd when first unveiled nearly 40 years ago. Today it is recognized as a landmark achievement in the musical theater, a near-operatic work that features some of Sondheim’s most beautiful melodies whenever violence is imminent.
So, as the opening choral number beckons, do “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” currently on view at Palm Beach Dramaworks in a brute yet beautifully sung, fully staged, razor-sharp production tinged with a neo-Victorian visual style known as steampunk.
Clive Cholerton, Dramaworks’ go-to guy for its summer musicals, clearly had his creative juices stimulated by this grisly material. His stylized production immerses us in Sweeney’s descent into madness while keeping us aware that we are watching a theater piece. Ensemble members double as stagehands, moving set fragments about the stage, supplying actors with costume changes and the occasional murder weapon. Yet unlike other recent re-conceptions of the show, Cholerton keeps the focus on Hugh Wheeler’s spare, but tense narrative and Sondheim’s intense score.
Sondheim has said that he was inspired by the jangly, cinematic compositions of Bernard Hermann, notably on such Hitchcock films as Psycho. And yet Sweeney Todd contains some of Sondheim’s loveliest melodies (“Pretty Women,” Sweeney’s “Johanna”) just as the stage action is most gruesome.
Musical numbers are often back-to-back studies in contrast, from high histrionics to music hall comic relief. Consider “Epiphany,” Sweeney’s fit of rage after the corrupt judge he is obsessed with killing escapes his clutches, followed by “A Little Priest,” a puckish waltz tempo duet between Sweeney and his pragmatic landlady, Nellie Lovett, as they consider the types of meat pies that various professions would yield.
It is a score of astonishing symphonic virtuosity, or at least it was with the original full orchestra and Jonathan Tunick arrangements. Bowing to economic realities, most productions since then have been musical compromises. The same is true at Dramaworks, though musical director Manny Schvartzman and his five-member combo do a remarkable job rendering the score’s beauty and drama.
Even theatergoers who have followed the career of Shane R. Tanner are likely to be stunned by his brooding, brawny performance as Sweeney, and the power of his rumbling baritone. Shackled early on with a long Duck Dynasty beard, a remnant of the character’s 15 years of Australian captivity, Tanner even survives that hirsute liability to dominate the production.
He is well matched by Ruthie Stephens as the pragmatic, love-struck Nellie Lovett, whose bakery business gets a boost from Sweeney’s homicidal practice sessions. She mines the character’s considerable comic potential, while also suggesting her sexuality.
The rest of the nimble 13-member cast is first-rate, notably Jennifer Molly Bell and Paul Louis Lessard as the young, not-too-bright ingénue lovers, Evan Alexander Jones as Tobias, Mrs. Lovett’s loyal, if suspicious, assistant, and Michael McKenzie and Jim Ballard as the show’s villains, Judge Turpin and his strong-armed beadle.
Scenic designer Michael Amico pays clever homage to Eugene Lee’s original Broadway factory set, Brian O’Keefe’s costumes are an eclectic array of anachronisms and the lighting by Donald Edmund Thomas leans heavily but aptly on broad strokes of red. Sweeney Todd is a show that is necessarily dark and brooding, but at Palm Beach Dramaworks, it is also a drop-dead, memorable experience.
SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Aug. 6, $67, 561-514-4042.