Leading lady's performance delicious to the last bite in 'Sweeney Todd'

Written by DSM Columnists on Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

1/16/2008 12:00AM CST
The Dallas Morning News
Leading lady's performance delicious to the last bite in 'Sweeney Todd'
by Lawson Taitte
ltaitte@dallasnews.com

THEATER REVIEW: Kaye cooks up humor, passion in 'Sweeney Todd'
Judy Kaye is a wonder as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. She's all the reason you need to run downtown to the Majestic Theatre.

Otherwise, the touring version of the recent Broadway revival, which the Dallas Summer Musicals' Broadway Contemporary Series brought to town on Tuesday, has its issues. But, as I always say, pretty much any Sweeney Todd is a good Sweeney Todd.

Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece, subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, recounts an old horror story. A barber, deported for a crime he didn't commit, returns to Victorian London to get his revenge. After the first man whose throat he slits, Sweeney's girlfriend, Mrs. Lovett, gets the bright idea of using the meat from the carcasses in the meat pies she sells.
The tale is gruesome, but onstage the bloody bits are a great deal less bothersome than in Tim Burton's current Golden Globe-winning movie version. Mr. Sondheim's witty lyrics keep the mind amused, while his nearly operatic score accumulates overwhelming momentum and power.

The British revival by John Doyle, imported to Broadway two seasons ago, cuts the epic musical down to size. Only 10 actors play all the roles, and they double as the orchestra. Ms. Kaye, for instance, plays the bright percussion instruments and occasionally wanders in with a tuba. The compression is all very clever, but it smacks more of thrift than of inspiration.

Setting the whole action in an insane asylum doesn't really work, either. The locale is all too obviously a metaphor; we don't believe for an instant that this is a cooperative production by the staff and the inmates. Unfortunately, the gimmick encourages the actors to go off the deep end. The young lovers, Johanna and Anthony, sometimes seem as loony as the truly crazy old beggar woman.

Frankly, all this doesn't matter much. The material is so strong, and the performers sufficiently competent, that Sweeney Todd survives in all its glory. I did find David Hess' performance of the title character somewhat problematical, in that he lacks the obsidian voice the part needs. He's also among the worst offenders in the acting-loony department. Yeah, Sweeney is more than slightly off his rocker. But the story does require him to be able to pass for normal.
But ah, Ms. Kaye. The first requirement for a Mrs. Lovett is a quirky sense of humor, and Ms. Kaye is as funny as they come. Her vocal technique has held up as well, so she can warble daintily or go as deep as her tuba, as required. This whole cast manages to make its words heard in the often intractable Majestic, but no one else uses language like Ms. Kaye. Every rhyme in the remarkably clever "A Little Priest" gets a laugh. But you also believe in the woman's passion for her lover and in her absolute determination to give him what he wants.

Since Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is the Sweeney Todd film's biggest problem, seeing Ms. Kaye is an ideal supplement – or antidote – for the film. It's a great performance by one of the great ladies of the American theater.

• Through Sunday at the Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St. Runs 150 mins. $16 to $72. Ticketmaster at 214-631-2787, http://www.ticketmaster.com/.

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