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A Tale of Two Todds

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There's no place like London.

So says the first verse of Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd which takes place in that wondrous town. But there's no place like New York--the city which premiered Sweeney back in 1979--and there's no place like Hollywood either--where Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are rumored to be planning a film adaptation of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Currently, we are witnessing a surfeit of Sweeneys. Besides the movie version, and a trend in opera companies mounting the musical, there's a novel new production that seems poised to influence all future Sweeneys--and perhaps all future musicals as well.

I saw this staging last year in London. Director John Doyle had paired Sweeney Todd down its barest essentials. One set with no changes, minimal props, and most all, no orchestra. Instead, Doyle had his actors playing the instruments.

Considering that the original Sweeney--with a cast of 30 and full orchestra--was directed by Harold Prince, just before his Phantom days, this is a pretty major alteration. But as clever as this 10-person production was, it didn't quite cut it. The story of a barber hell-bent on revenge and his partnership with a batty meat-pie seller felt cold and calculated in the small London space. The good singers couldn't play their instruments, and the good musicians couldn't act. In short, it sounded better in theory than it did on stage.

It was quite a surprise then to learn that Broadway--which seems primarily interested in musicals as garish spectacles these days--was interested in this sashimi Sweeney. But sure enough, last fall it opened on the Great White Way to rave reviews.

How did this happen? A miracle of casting. In this American production, each of the 10 performers is perfectly cast in terms of acting and singing--and they all can play their instruments too. Even after seeing the work performed in major opera houses, I have to say that musically, this is the richest Sweeney I've heard.

Much of this is due to the singer in the title role, Michael Cerveris. Cerveris was an amazing Hedwig here in Hollywood a few seasons back, but this is a career defining performance. He's joined by two women who are equally revelatory in their roles: Patty LuPone as a skanky Mrs. Lovett and Lauren Molina who brings new depth--and neuroses--to the part of Johanna.

The good news is that this Sweeney is such a success that it's almost sure to make it west--though, it may not be worth waiting for if there are cast replacements. The staging may be the gimmick that gets people's attention, but it's this cast that makes Doyle's Sweeney soar.

But for those fans of the show who don't want to rush east, fear not--there is a Sweeney to be seen here in Los Angeles. East West Players, a local troupe with lots of previous Sondheim shows--and even a Sweeney--under its belt, is currently telling the tale of Sweeney Todd, albeit in a decidedly old-fashioned manner.

Amazingly enough, this small production boasts a bigger cast than one currently on Broadway. And that's not all that's bigger. Director Tim Dang provides a grandiose rotating set, complete with a retractable barber's chair that whisks Sweeney's victims down to their doom. Also, he's chosen not give the score or libretto a trim, so this Sweeney runs a full half-hour longer than Doyle's reduced version.

All of this adds up to a dutiful, pleasant barbershop experience that is never cutting-edge yet rarely dull. Ronald M. Banks' Sweeney is solid, though his rage never really radiates from the stage. Unlike most of the all-Asian cast, Marilyn Tokuda adopts a cockney accent as Mrs. Lovett, though she drops her lines as often as her &quotH;&quots.; Timothy Ford Murphy shines brightest as Anthony--and he also gets to showcase the production's one departure from convention. When serenading Johanna, the line &quotburied; sweetly in your yellow hair," is changed to &quotburied; sweetly in your raven hair." A small change, compared to Sweeney Todd's recent Broadway makeover, but an interesting one to be sure.

East West Player's Sweeney Todd runs until March 19 in Little Tokyo; John Doyle's production of Sweeney continues on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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