New ‘Sweeney’ boils Sondheim to the bones

Posted Feb. 26, 2009, at 11:02 p.m.

How theatergoers reacted to Wednesday night’s stripped-down version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine probably depends on which word they place more emphasis — musical or theater.

The original 1979 production staged by Broadway impresario Hal Prince was described by more than one reviewer as “Dickensian.” With a 27-piece orchestra and a set that was considered monstrously expensive and complex at the time, it had an epic sweep and grandeur that other shows spent the next decade trying to match.

Thirty years later, the cost of replicating that production, especially on tour, would have been prohibitive. So English director John Doyle boiled Sweeney and Sondheim down to their bones. Whether he stripped the show of its soul also depends on whether audiences place the accent on theater or musical.

The national touring company of Doyle’s 2005 “Sweeney Todd” revival that won him many awards and accolades uses 10 musicians who play all the characters in the show. Wednesday night’s version at the remodeled Collins Center for the Arts featured University of Maine alum Merritt David Janes in the starring role. Before joining the “Sweeney Todd” company that tours through April, he played Robbie Hart in the national tour of “The Wedding Singer.”

The 26-year-old Colchester, Vt., native graduated from UMaine in 2004 with a degree in music education and went on to study acting at Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York City. The show moves to Portland tonight and to Janes’ home state over the weekend.

Janes is a little young to be believed as the man so wronged that he seeks revenge on the world. His powerful baritone, however, gave nuance and depth to a performance that could have been one-dimensional and the way he wielded a straight razor made him menacing. He played the lyric guitar, but of all the performers was required to play an instrument the least.

Carri Cimma was Janes’ partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, the maker of the worst meat pies in London until Sweeney comes along. The actress played the cymbals, triangle and tuba with such glee that she evoked the most the laughter from the audience. Cimma’s energy was a delightful foil to Janes’ often deadpan Sweeney.

Young lovers Anthony and Johanna played by Duke Anderson and Wendy Muir made this “Sweeney Todd” soar. Both college students — he at Oklahoma City University and she at the University of Illinois — sang with a mastery they aren’t old enough to have and a clarity only young voices consistently can deliver.

Anderson’s tenor and Muir’s soprano blended into a sweet confection that was a welcome antidote to Sweeney’s bitterness. Yet, it was their sensuous duets on their cellos that gave the audience hope that love could, if not conquer, at least survive the hostile world.

The other performers, especially Chris Marchant as Tobias, gave fine and subtle performances. David Alan Marshall’s Judge Turpin, however, never quite captured the evil Sondheim gave the man who’s unable to tame his lust for young women and, perhaps, even younger girls.

So there it was — the skeleton of “Sweeney Todd” onstage for all to see and see through. And that, for this theater lover, was the problem. Sondheim stands alone in the musical and theater worlds for the complexity of scores and lyrics. But to truly be transformed by his work, that skeletons need some flesh on those bones, and it needs to wear its soul on its sleeve.

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