May 4, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The terrific Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park With George may have closed, but if anyone still needs a Stephen Sondheim fix, there is no shortage of productions of his work Off-Broadway. The Classic Stage Company on 13th Street in the East Village is doing the seldom-seen Pacific Overtures, and the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village has the Tooting Arts Club’s London import of Sweeney Todd. I saw them back-to-back the past two nights and both are well worth seeing.
As someone who has been going to the theatre since the age of eleven, it’s been my good fortune to have seen the original incarnations of some of the most exciting shows of the past fifty years. Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, were not only did they boast enough creativity to furbish a dozen musicals, they were also lavish (with the former brightly colored and the latter muted and unusually dark). Sondheim was at the peak of his powers, coming off a decade that began with Company in 1970, followed by Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd (1978). No one has approached that output since, or succeeded in such a critical fashion. They were all directed by Harold Prince, who won Tonys for three of the five (Sondheim went four for five, if you’re keeping score). Boris Aronson’s scenic design for Pacific Overtures was one of his greatest achievements (which is saying a lot), and Eugene Lee’s iron foundry setting for Sweeney was enormous in size and inventiveness. Both won Tonys.
The fact that these two new stagings are scaled down in almost every way makes it difficult to not carry over the memories of the monumental aspect of their first incarnations. Each has been edited, and at ninety minutes, there’s more of a Pacific Entr’acte than an Overture (if you’ll excuse the pun). The original production had a cast of thirty-one; this one, staged by the director John Doyle, who has made a career out of minimalism, has ten with one cast member, George Takei as the Narrator, reduced to little to do. With his role diced up and distributed among the other nine actors, one can only assume this was so as to not overtax Mr. Takei, who has just turned eighty, God love him. But it weakens the Narrator’s position within the piece, especially how is negated (for no discernable reason) to an off-stage voice in the opening number. There is no set and there are virtually no costumes (the actors are mostly in modern dress with the occasional silk robe tossed over their street attire). With the memories of Florence Klotz’s costumes for the original production still burning bright (another Tony), and with clear recollections of the choreography by Patricia Birch, so beautifully stylized in movement and tone, I was left somewhat saddened by a production that had neither.
What it does have are some glorious voices, although even in the small space of the Classic Stage Theatre, which seats approximately 300, everyone is miked. At the Barrow Street Theatre, an even more intimate space with a 130-seat capacity for this Sweeney, its usual black box has been transformed into an actual pie shop, properly distressed and dingy. You can order an optional meat or vegetable pie (and mash) for a not-quite-nominal fee ($22.50) before the show begins. With audience in rows that allows for the actors to jump up on the long tables, if they so choose, the full force of their desire, anger, and powerful energy get right in your face. And the decision to let the actors voices soar naturally with no miking, adds immeasurably to the score’s majestic feel, in spite of its instrumentation and chorus dwindled down to a precious few. At the curtain call, when just eight actors bowed alongside three musicians, the standing ovation felt entirely deserved and heartfelt. Directed by Bill Bruckhurst with gutsy verve and imagination, and ingeniously re-orchestrated by Benjamin Cox, this is really some accomplishment, especially as much of the staging is on a sliver the size of a portion of an ordinary living room. The intimacy makes the play’s horror come alive in ways I’ve never felt before (and I’ve seen Sweeney in many different productions over the past thirty-nine years).
Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy, the Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett brought over from London in February, returned home in mid-April. Now these great parts are being re-interpreted by the gifted actor-singers Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello. Lewis is in splendid voice and is properly terrifying whenever the situation calls for it. He is also a good-sized Sweeney, who at over six feet, towers over most of the cast, adding a touch of menace that is amplified by the close-quarters with which the audience experiences him. Bringing the appropriate pathos, he makes for a moving Sweeney, which is the key to any actor’s ultimate success in the role. Carmello, a veteran of more than a dozen Broadway musicals, brings her unique mezzo-soprano and wonderful comedic timing to Mrs. Lovett. It came as no surprise that she delivers with style and substance, having enjoyed past performances of hers ranging from “the Lesbian from Next Door” in the first Broadway Falsettos in 1992, to her aching Lucille Frank in 1998’s Parade. Lewis and Carmello’s end of Act I duet of “A Little Priest” squeezes every ounce of comedy from Sondheim’s too-clever-by half lyrics, adding an extra dollop of vinegar as well for good measure.
These are both difficult and challenging shows. No one else at the time except for Sondheim and Prince would have thought to musicalize the destruction — without weapons — of feudal Japan by the invasion of the outside world. Or for that matter, using cannibalism as satire to express the brutality of man’s inhumanity to man in the early days of the industrial revolution. And though Sweeney won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1979, it closed after fifteen months without returning full percentages to those who invested in it. Pacific Overtures, having opened shortly after A Chorus Line had stolen the thunder of every new musical in its path, closed after five months at a loss of its entire investment. Financial success isn’t the only barometer of a show’s quality, but these failures at the box office didn’t bode well for what was to come after 1980 — the British invasion of Evita, Cats and Les Miserables — relegating the Broadway musical to also-ran status for a number of years.
And so for a glimpse of the glory of daring musical theatre of the 70’s, representative of a time that hurtled the American musical beyond anything it had ever previously accomplished, hurry to these fresh reinterpretations, as they are in limited engagements. Pacific Overtures opens tonight and runs through June 18th. Sweeney Todd runs through August 13th.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/