SWEENEY TODD at the York Theater Company

Anyone who still considers Stephen Sondheim's operatic musical Sweeney Todd inseparable from the original Harold Prince production needs only visit the Church of the Heavenly Rest, where Susan H. Schulman has mounted an entirely viable, intimate production that could not be more different -- it's not only less grand, it's more guignol. From the first chorus, James Morgan's environmental set establishes an atmosphere of grubby desperation; the audience is literally surrounded by curtains of drying laundry, and Sweeney brandishes his razor only inches from your own scalp. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury loom large in Sweeney Todd history, yet Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler transcend comparisons. At close range, Fowler's haimische maternalism reveals through simple means the several colors of that dreamy, deluded baker, Mrs. Lovett. By contrast, Gunton's demon barber of Fleet Street is oversize, yet he brings a Kabuki grimness to the role that is riveting, chilling, and moving (despite some problems staying on pitch). When those two are offstage, the feeling of being in  school gymnasium occasionally intrudes, especially because Jim Walton and Gretchen Kingsley-Weihe are less than compelling in the difficult, simpy ingenue roles; but Eddie Korbich has a lovely singing voice as Tobias (who sings the show's standard, "Not While I'm Around"), and David Barron's self-flagellation scene makes it clear that Judge Turpin is one mean fuck. The production's strengths communicate the essence of Sondheim's bleak dissection of the social contract; where Prince made you feel you were scrutinizing it from the clinical perspective of a high-tech operating theater, the York puts you on the patient's table.

7 Days, April 19, 1989