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Emotions are instrumental to 'Sweeney'

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NEW YORK -- It was with some trepidation that I attended a preview of British director John Doyle's new, stripped-down take on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (*** 1/2 out of four).

Though I wasn't lucky enough to have caught the first Broadway production of the greatest musical of the past 30 years, I regard the original cast recording with the kind of reverence associated with Talmudic scholars and Star Trek fanatics. In 1979, Jonathan Tunick's haunting orchestrations for Stephen Sondheim's score were delivered by a 27-piece orchestra, with a sterling cast led by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. So the notion that Doyle and his musical supervisor, Sarah Travis, had pared it down to accommodate 10 actors doubling as musicians made me a little nervous.

I needn't have worried. This Sweeney Todd, which opened Thursday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, is as thrilling as it is bold. Travis' spare, spooky arrangements may not have the majestic sweep of Tunick's, but they're perfectly suited to Doyle's staging.

Rather than ape initial director Harold Prince's epic approach, Doyle uses a minimalist set and few props, forcing his actors to rely almost entirely on emotional expression and interpersonal contact, even as they juggle their roles with orchestral duties requiring them to play up to three instruments each.

Luckily, Doyle, who introduced this production in the U.K. with different performers, has acquired a company whose virtuosity is matched by a breathtaking chemistry. This is especially true of Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, who play the avenging Todd and Mrs. Lovett, the piemaker who devises a scheme to make his bloodlust profitable.

I had seen LuPone tackle Todd's adoring, amoral accomplice in a concert staged with the New York Philharmonic and was less than riveted. But under Doyle's guidance, her Mrs. Lovett becomes less cartoonish, at once funnier and more chilling in her wily desperation.

Cerveris is equally impressive in a more demanding part. Ideally, Todd should convey some of the menacing sensuality that distinguishes that other great musical-theater anti-hero, The Threepenny Opera's Macheath, but with a more pronounced sense of righteous indignation at the corrupt society that created him. Watching the relatively young, spry Cerveris pace the stage like a caged animal, his shaved head gleaming, you fully appreciate both Todd's dangerous allure and the deep sadness underlying his rage.

Other standouts include Alexander Gemignani, who puts a winningly wry spin on the unctuous Beadle Bamford, and Lauren Molina, who is drolly fetching as Todd's beleaguered daughter, Johanna. She plays a pretty mean cello, too.

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