I generally prefer to write about locally originated productions presented by Cincinnati-area theaters. There are plenty of them to see right now, but a rarity is onstage at the Aronoff Center this week and next -- a truly original touring interpretation of a Broadway classic, one well worth seeing. It's director John Doyle's revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
If Doyle's name sounds familiar, that's because he was pursued by many theaters for his next production after his success in England with a scaled-down version of Sweeney Todd with actors doubling as musicians that eventually moved to Broadway.
The Cincinnati Playhouse's Ed Stern succeeded in bringing Doyle to town to stage another Sondheim classic, Company, a big hit for the Playhouse two years ago. It subsequently moved on to Broadway, where it earned a 2007 Tony Award for best revival of a musical. In fact, this week Great Performances on PBS airs a recorded version of the Broadway production of Company on Wednesday evening, a further honor for Doyle and the Playhouse.
As a result, you have the chance to see both of Doyle's productions almost simultaneously: Company on PBS and Sweeney Todd at the Aronoff. If you've already seen the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp film version of Sweeney Todd, you might wonder why you should go see it onstage. I won't dissuade you from the cinematic experience -- it's a fine film, and Depp has been nominated for an Academy Award -- but you'll come away with a deeper appreciation of Sondheim's musical and theatrical genius if you also see the unusual touring production at the Aronoff.
Truth to tell, Doyle's staging a derivative work: If you've never seen Sweeney Todd, you might have a hard time following this stage version, with just 10 performers also serving as the orchestra. But you'll hear Sondheim's music in new ways. The original Broadway Sweeney Todd in 1979 had a big orchestra and an immense set; this new, intimate staging -- with its Tony Award-winning orchestrations -- lets you hear the music, and especially the words, in whole new ways.
What's more, you'll hear all the words. Tim Burton translated the musical into a successfully scary (and bloody) film. But he sacrificed much of Sweeney's memorable music, thought by many to be Sondheim's greatest score, to keep the film under two hours. The entire score is being performed at the Aronoff, played in ways you've never quite experienced it on any other stage.
One other observation: Another gauge of Sondheim's genius is his willingness to let his shows be reinterpreted. Some creators are unwilling to let new concepts be applied to their work. Sondheim relishes it. And his works are all the more impressive for this kind of depth and flexibility. Take my advice this week and "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd."
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