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The Problem With Obsession

The strange musical blood-theater of Sweeney Todd

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To help dry my new wings as Theater Child, I’ve recruited the assistance of a certain well-versed scholar of theater—I’ll call him Bernie—to help tap my lumps of coal into the gems which follow.

Bernie says that the most important thing about a musical is that you can hear the words. In Sweeney Todd, word clarity was not a problem. Not only that, but the orchestra was lively and tight with the vocals—some very sweet songbird vocals. Let me enunciate clearly: This show rocks. It made me proud to be here in Missoula.

The Sweeney Todd stage set has been tapped into 24 spinning carrots of 3D shapeshifting surround-story. The set disintegrates, whirls, and re-assembles like a Transformer toy. All the while, the moment of truth builds in climactic waves 10 feet above center stage. Dead Center. And because the set moves around so much, we see many elements from several angles, providing the audience with a virtual tour of the surreal, caricaturesque world of Sweeney Todd.

As you sit there trying to figure out what will happen in the end, you can look for clues if it is either comedy or tragedy. Bernie notes that in Aristotle’s Poetics, reversal and revelation are fundamental tragic vehicles. (Sweeney Todd has both, in spades.) Oh no, does this mean tragedy?

“It’s melodrama really,” says director Bill Watson, “with a twist towards Grand Guignol Theater of France.” For those not so in tune as Theater Child with the currents and trends of the thee-ahhh-tair, Grand Guignol means something like “Blood Theater” in French, akin to macabre, “with death as the main subject,” usually bloody.

Theater Child’s spin: A close viewing will in fact suggest a refutation of the Machiavellian assertion that the ends justify the means—even if that end is justice. Indeed, if there is a moral behind Sweeney Todd, it might be that justice without grace can quickly pervert. If so, then by shining the spotlight on grace, Sweeney Todd moves towards the “feel-good” end of the spectrum—all from within the context of a shaving duel between rival Machiavellian straight razors.

The play works the audience the way a lover can work you, from your ticklespot to your G-spot. Indeed, one of the things that I liked best about this play was its no-holds barred exploration into the wild dregs of the human condition. It is against the oftentimes bleak and disturbing backdrops such as this one that we can find shimmering examples of pure beauty. But viewer be warned: If you are offended by “offensive material,” if you prefer to bury your head in the sand rather than honor the dregs, well, you might want to steer clear of this one.

Sweeney Todd blurs the line between tragedy and comedy to the point where this fictional melodrama starts humming in the key of truth, i.e., what is real in the human condition. Just another battle for the blond. Or was she saffron? She, the only one without blemish, is caged like a songbird and labeled insane. But unlike Sweeney, who chokes, Johanna has the balls to seize her one opportunity to continue blossoming without blemish.

Almost without blemish, anyway. But who’s keeping score? The line between premeditation and temporary insanity makes all the difference in the world. This play is about the difference between wolves in the pack eating their own outcasts during lean times, and a wolf who is willing chew off its own paw to get free.

Hugh Wheeler’s script adaptation of the 16th century book Sweeney Todd, by Christopher Bond, maintains a comfortable, multi-stroke lead on the viewer. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I leaned over to Bernie and boldly told him that I knew what was going to happen in the end. Stephen Sondheim’s 1977 masterpiece of lyric and sound centers the creative force behind what Watson calls “one of the greatest musicals of my lifetime,” a story that comes together and falls apart like the death and birth of the universe.

Bernie put it best when he said, “Wow, I can’t believe how good it was.”

And the greatest art is sometimes in the anticlimax—the afterglow, as it were, where you figure out what it all means to you. It has to mean something, because it is about you. You laugh, you cry. You go home. You have dreams. Maybe you learn that most non-fatal flaws are best shared by those who seal contracts with kisses, rather than blood—whenever possible.

The UM Department of Drama/Dance and Department of Music present Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, April 19-21 and April 24-28 in UM’s Montana Theatre. 7:30 PM. Tickets are $12 for general public and $10 for students and seniors, available at the PARTV and UC box offices. Call 243-4581.

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