`Sweeney Todd' Is A Hit - Again

Musical revival gets a more intimate staging. THEATER: REVIEW

SWEENEY TODD Musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Starring Bob Gunton, Beth Fowler. Choreography by Michael Litchfield. `SWEENEY TODD'' has succeeded anew in a stunning York Theatre Company revival at the Broadway Circle in the Square. Seldom if ever has the elongated arena-style playing space been used more effectively or imaginatively than in Susan H. Schulman's staging of the 1979 Tony Award musical melodrama by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler. Starring Bob Gunton as the vengeance-obsessed demon barber, and Beth Fowler as the doting Mrs. Lovett, the new version - unsparing in its grimness - is already a major event in what promises to be a lively season.

The adaptation is part Victorian thriller, part black comedy, and part morality play. As originally staged by Harold Prince, 19th-century London was represented by a massive foundry symbolizing the British industrial revolution, with all its materialism and squalor, judicial inequities, and teeming humanity.

The York Theatre version (which happens to be taking place in the downstairs playhouse of what was then the Uris Theatre where ``Sweeney Todd'' originated) is more intimate in physical and psychological terms. Smoke spews from the chimney pots atop Mrs. Lovett's snug quarters. As scurrying actors arrange and rearrange the mobile platforms of James Morgan's settings, the spectator experiences a growing involvement in the scene.

Borrowing from earlier sources, the Broadway adapters retold the tale of the greatly wronged Sweeney, deprived of his wife by corrupt Judge Turpin (David Barron), who had him transported to Australia for life. Escaped and returned to London, Sweeney goes about avenging himself, not only on his persecutor but on a vicious society. He encounters Mrs. Lovett, who makes ``the worst pies in London'' and who soon agrees to use the remains of Sweeney's victims as ingredients.

``Sweeney Todd'' achieves a riveting intensity that transcends mere theatricalism. Mr. Gunton's barber moves through his nightmare fixation as a man obsessively haunted and progressively more haggard. Sweeney's discovery that his daughter has become the ward of the ruthless Judge Turpin merely adds to the demon barber's vengefulness. The role has inspired one of Broadway's finest singing actors to give one of his finest performances. In Miss Fowler's Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney finds the ideal helpmeet for the grisly enterprise.

The Sondheim-Wheeler treatment is a seamless mingling of song and spoken text. From the staccato opening, ``The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,'' the musical numbers both reinforce and help advance the melodrama. The score ranges widely in mood and texture. There are tender songs for Sweeney's daughter Johanna (Gretchen Kingsley) and her sailor rescuer Anthony Hope (Jim Walton). There is the extraordinarily touching ``Not While I'm Around,'' beautifully sung by Eddie Korbich as Tobias, Mrs. Lovett's apprentice. The sardonic rhyming recipe, ``A Little Priest,'' is delivered by Gunton and Miss Fowler with relish. SUCH samplings merely hint at the musical riches of ``Sweeney Todd.'' They have been amply responded to in the performance conducted by David Krane, who leads a small instrumental ensemble (reinforced by occasional electronic shock effects). Besides an admirably disciplined group of London casuals, the vocally gifted cast includes SuEllen Estey, Michael McCarty, and Bill Nabel. Mr. Morgan's comprehensive London settings have been lighted to suit the mood by Mary Jo Dondlinger. Beba Shamash has provided the Victorian costumes.

There may be a certain irony in the fact that the season's first major musical should be a treasure from Broadway's past (restored in this case by an Off Off Broadway company). Yet the show illustrates the richness and variety of the scene. Current Broadway musicals include the now venerable ``A Chorus Line,'' the richly nostalgic ``Black and Blue,'' the Andrew Lloyd Webber-T.S. Eliot ``Cats,'' the incomparable ``Jerome Robbins' Broadway,'' the grandiose ``Les Mis'erables,'' ``The Phantom of the Opera,'' and the jolly jingling ``Me and My Girl.'' According to present indications, revivals will intermingle with new works among the musical shows scheduled for upcoming months.

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