Blood-red chaos — "a city on fire" — is as crucial to any production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "Sweeney Todd" as those silver razers are to the famously vengeful barber whose inhospitable tonsorial parlor lies at the core of this great American musical. And when you're slashing and burning at a venerable suburban theater astride wedding ballrooms and cocktails? All the more riveting and radical the experience. Don't expect Mrs. Lovett's meat pies as the special of the day in the dining room at the Drury Lane Oakbrook. But the filling on this grandly ambitious stage is tasty indeed. If you like intensity of flavor and a little kick.
In Rachel Rockwell's thoroughly compelling, gorgeously sung (Roberta Duchak is musical director), and intensely committed new production of the venerable favorite, the designer Kevin Depinet explodes perceptions of this space by putting the action on a discomforting, streetlike diagonal. One end seems to disappear into nowhere, as if Fleet Street were hacking its way through the world. The other seems to tease and taunt the famous Drury Lane chandeliers. The backdrop to this alley, and also the boundary of Bedlam, is a curtain of the heavy plastic flaps that take the place of doors at supermarkets. It's a very striking image — part salon, part abattoir, part poor embittered Sweeney's shards of a heart.
Ever since John Doyle's Broadway revival — a remarkable production, but a "Sweeney" for those who had seen many — minimalist takes on this material have been in vogue. Rockwell didn't get that memo. There is neither fear here of the Grand Guignol nor any desire for the kind of revisionism that might titillate Sondheim sophisticates or justify a Broadway revival. The story is told; the emotions are taken at face value; the mechanical chair drops the bodies into the pies from a hefty height and with the most satisfying rapidity; and a skilled and gifted ensemble who look like they would eat raw flesh in service of this production's vision stare and sing out at you like Victorian apparitions come back to haunt you with their, your demons. The bench of talent is deep indeed; those who usually play leads (Larry Adams, Cory Goodrich, David Girolmo and many such others) populate what's surely the most remarkable ensemble to hit a Chicago stage in quite some time.
The principal players are the ensemble's equals. The first encounter between the beautiful imprisoned Johanna (Emily Rohm) and the handsome sailor Anthony (William Travis Taylor) is often a milquetoast and optimistic encounter. In Rockwell's version, you get such a sudden and powerful dose of a young woman in desperate crisis that you half want to take to the stage and rescue her yourself from the slimy Judge Turpin (played with oily octane by Kevin Gudahl). Even at the risk of ending up in a pie. I've never seen a "Sweeney" that has so clearly made the point that Johanna was in no position to be choosy. Any sailor would have done.
Those scenes involving Rohm and Taylor — and those who aid and thwart their mutual desire — are all the high points of this production. Well, that and Liz McCartney's delicious, hilarious, coquettish, technically masterful take on Mrs. Lovett. As such takes go, McCartney tends toward the gentler and sympathetic end, but that flows from the fullness and accessible reality of the character. Anyway, "Sweeney" has always played on contrasts better than almost any other musical. One of the most beautiful melodies ever composed for the theater, "Johanna," becomes a backdrop for throat-cutting. The funniest lyrics Sondheim ever wrote — which McCartney massages in her mouth like little chicken nuggets during the spectacular "A Little Priest" — involve cannibalism, at merely a pastry remove. The mood here, which Rockwell exquisitely captures and which old London town seems to perennially accommodate, is that the flames are always burning. Sometimes inside; sometimes out.
There are many ways to do Todd himself, and the full-on erotic charge of a Johnny Depp or a Michael Cerveris is but one choice; Todd has been through trauma and is lost in a London fog of his creation. That sense of confusion and dislocation is what roots Gregg Edelman's character. Some will argue that he does not drive the show with the necessary force and it's true that his energy is more halting and jolting and, in the middle of the second act, his psyche and drive do seem to briefly disappear. His relationship with his pie-bakin' pal could use more sexual oomph. All that said, Edelman is playing a character afflicted by regret and the capacity for error; this is not only a fascinating performance but an inherently generous one. Most Todds are interested in power; Edelman's guy mostly wants relief from that chaos.
That mid section of the second act has a few other problems. Whenever you have the chair up high (as distinct from over a pit), you have to maneuver the structure that contains it, and there moments where a big, ever-spinning set-piece pulls too much focus, and the rest of the show seems trapped. But Rockwell corrects that quickly. The performances here — including George Andrew Wolff's slimy but gorgeously sung Beadle — are just too rich to get shoved aside. As Heidi Kettenring's haunting, creepy, desperate Beggar Women unlocks the story and breaks hearts, they sing out pain and pleasures. Undaunted.
When: Through Oct. 9
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets: $35-$46 at 630-530-0111 and drurylaneoakbrook.com