Sweeney Todd - Adelphi Theatre, 23 March 2012
Although Broadway's answer to Wozzeck has led a parallel life in the opera house, it is at heart a musical, with all the emphasis on verbal and visual storytelling that implies. And the theatrical values of this excellent production are its greatest strength - despite a roaring trade in cast soundtrack CDs in the foyer.
Nicholas Skillbeck's musical direction is irreproachable. But Michael Ball, in the title role, is the only cast member to sing (or even attempt) all the notes in the fiendishly difficult score. Most of the cast assault Sondheim's tortuous melodies with a cunning blend of speaking and approximated pitch. The acting is generally strong enough to do without the extra element of characterisation that the vocal writing provides - but anyone expecting musical virtuosity should be forewarned.
There are a lot of laughs in this production, and most of them come from Imelda Staunton's Mrs Lovett, a lightly overplayed cross between her own Vera Drake and Julie Walters' Mrs Overall.
Ball, unrecognisable beneath a lank fringe and beard, gives a far more subdued performance. His brooding Todd isn't overtly menacing, which makes his relish at gore-spurting throat slitting all the more disturbing. One of the show's finest moments is his reprise of Johanna, crooning the touching lyrics in his trademark liquid caramel tones as he despatches customer after customer from barber's chair to basement.
Jonathan Kent has updated the setting to the 1940s for no obvious reason. If you can overlook the resulting incongruity of the references to beadles and Bedlam and so on, the story progresses fluently enough, aided by superb lighting and a simple, functional set.
The biggest problem with the design of this show is its incompatibility with the Adelphi auditorium. Because the stage is high, and a lot of the action takes place on a raised platform, most seats have a restricted view. Sitting in row L of the stalls I was just about OK, but much further forward and you'd be too far below the level of the stage to see everything. Too much further back, and the view of the top of the stage is clipped by the overhanging dress circle. And only the central seats have a full view of the action at the sides of the stage. Study the Theatremonkey guide carefully before buying tickets - and check for discounts too.