The 2005 Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd" earned John Doyle a Tony for Best Director, rewarding him for his ingenious concept of the actors' dual role as on-stage musicians, singing to their own accompaniment.
Yet Doyle's highly stylized visualization was arguably more revolutionary. Rather than staging a morality tale of clashing Victorian classes, he chillingly reimagined the story as told by residents of an insane asylum. Todd is an institutionalized serial killer re-enacting his crimes and Lovett is under treatment for cannibalism. Tobias Ragg is not only Mrs. Lovett's unwitting accomplice, he's been lobotomized and takes on the role as our primary narrator. Toby, once freed from his straitjacket, extends the first invitation to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd."
How did master composer Stephen Sondheim respond to the drastic revision?
"Of all the productions I've seen, this is the one that comes closest to Grand Guignol, closest to what I originally wanted to do," he told the New York Times' Charles Isherwood when interviewed for the show's premiere.
At the University of Utah production, director David Schmidt eschews the celebrated operatic-scale production of Hal Prince's original for Doyle's insane asylum framework storytelling. And "Sweeney Todd" becomes a deliciously macabre nightmare.
The minimalist aesthetic that worked so successfully in the Doyle version is re-created here. An intricately carved red dinner chair replaces the mechanicalized barber chair, and there are no gory spurts of blood. As Todd slices throats, he pulls out a long red ribbon nestled into his victims' clothing. The intimate Studio 115 stage becomes claustrophobically enclosed in this compelling story-theater version.
Relying on recorded orchestrations, Schmidt focuses his directorial energy on showmanship of his cast. The students are up the challenges of the Sondheim score and display budding strengths as actor-singers.
Joseph M. Bosteder is a haunting Sweeney, with an insatiable desire. He seems to slowly develop the role while on stage, but when his "right arm is complete again" in "My Friends," the audience is captivated until the play's murderous conclusion. Bosteder is single-cast in the role, and during the limited run, the meaty role of Lovett will be played by three actresses. In the performance reviewed here, Amada Shrum has a pleasant voice but struggles to bring the pie-maker to vivid life.
As the young lovers Johanna and Anthony, Arielle Schmidt and Austin John Smith deeply impress. Schmidt is heartbreakingly tender in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and Smith makes "Johanna" a sweet plea for affection. Mason Holmstead and Trevor Blair are scene-stealers as Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, and when they are in scenes together, lightening seems to strike. Also impactful members of the cast are Dylan Adams as Toby, Megan Winegar as Pirelli and Tia Galanis as Lucy Barker.
In the same Isherwood interview, Sondheim said he characterized "all the major productions (of 'Sweeney Todd') I've seen in terms of a single adjective. Hal's was epic" and the Doyle staging was "the most intense." When that intensity can be replicated by a talented muscial cast, "Sweeney Todd" is a true theatrical thriller.
Pictured: Joseph M. Bosteder as Sweeney and Tia Galanis as Lucy Barker.