Article on Sweeney Todd!

July 15th, 2012 at 05:09pm brian

This is a translation of the article from

Sweeney Todd Production still

Photo by Gunther D. | (c) 2012

In the intimate yet cosy space of Prague’s Divadlo Na Pradle, on Thursday, July 28, 2012 took place an event of great importance. The Czech premier of the classic American musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. It is quite simply the most important event of the summer, which would stand out even in the regular season, and it is our pleasure to report that this opportunity is not to be missed.

The production of “Sweeney Todd”, as with any production of the work of the “solo” artist Stephen Sondheim is a very big deal for the local Czech audiences. Everyone who reads these pages will know that he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story”. You could also see his lyric in the recent production of “Gypsy” in Plzen. But the musicals where he wrote both the music and lyrics, as opposed to the rest of the world theater scene, are practically unknown to Czech audiences, even though in America he is considered the founder of the modern musical and there is a theater named after him on Broadway. The last production in Czech was the production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1968 at Divadlo ABC, which was translated by Jana Kvapilova and Jan Werich and which we unfortunately must consider almost an archaeological excursion to uncover details about (at the Theater Institute there are a few reviews, some materials and photographs as well as the Czech translation for those who want to take a closer look). But apart from that, until this July, there hasn’t been one production of Sondheim’s solo work in a long 44 years!

The dramaturgically challenging piece is not being produced by a large theater, but, surprisingly, by the small company Prague Playhouse, which is focused on producing theater for English speakers. The production of “Sweeney Todd” is their largest production to date and from the start was full of a passionate, international team which also included Czech and Slovak artists. While the entire production had only a very small budget, including donations from patrons, that fact is almost invisible to the audience.

The performance is given in the original English, which is good in this instance: the audience can become acquainted with Sondheim’s crystal clear poetry together with the genius and in places almost operatic music without the barriers or compromises which would need to be taken if the text was translated into Czech. Nevertheless, you don’t have to be afraid: the performance is accompanied by Czech subtitles, translated by Milan Malinovsky (who also translated the Slovak production of the cult musical “Rent” by Jonathan Larson), which offer an exact and as subtitles go, playful translation of the text. (Just a note: as you will probably notice, Mrs. Lovett starts to use the informal “you” with Sweeney fairly early even though in the English she is saying “Mr. Todd” which would indicate the formal “you”).

Even though the musical is based on a version of the oft told trope, where the main theme is a hunger for revenge, this version of the story is probably best known from the stylized and somewhat shortened film version by Tim Burton. The energetic director, theater world-traveller Steve Josephson has taken the work back to its roots (which Tim Burton with his uncompromising visual effects had removed): right back to black comedy.

Mr. Josephson’s version of the story is played in a graveyard by the victims of the Demon Barber, so even they (with one exception) are the undead inhabitants of the graveyard. It is a story told retrospectively. The undead concept then allows the beginning of the stylization going all the way to the grotesque, which most of the performers play with gusto. The concept is well served not only by Brian Caspe in the title role, but by the excellent Caryn Stringer as Mrs. Lovett as well as the noteworthy Milan Malinovsky as the villain – Judge Turpin. And the Czech players aren’t lost in it either. Mr. Josephson’s choreography helps many of the scenes, especially those with humor and the group numbers. It is simple, but in many moments it helps make a point of the situation.

The set design, making good use of a turning set system (and the “Demon Chair” is also put to good use), allows for lightning quick scene changes in addition to adding to the impression of the bustle of the city because all of the stage crew are in costume. Simple and functional, many other theaters could learn from this.

Behind the turning set, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of conductor Emmanuel Placier guiding a 10 piece orchestra made up of international players.

To be sure, we could write several paragraphs about the the technical mistakes (the sound was “troublesome” almost throughout) during the performance, including the fact that for about the first quarter of an hour there wasn’t the right atmosphere. The talented company took a long time to warm up and might have had opening night jitters. To that, the person in the know puts it in the drawer labeled “it will get ironed out in the performances” and takes it as a fact of life in the theater that it’s a part of the theatrical organism. But in this instance the mistakes were so minor that they were completely overcome by the overall experience.

Allow me a small sidebar: Steve Josephson is in Prague to work on a project of decidedly different parameters: he will work as a choreographer on the new project from the Landa’s – “Key of Kings” at Divadlo Broadway with a big budget and ensemble. But Steve likes such contradictions. He like’s Landa’s music and has worked with with the married and creative pair over a year. Maybe they will use his rich experience to help with the new rock opera to succeed.

Why not say it outright: that my “theater lover’s heart” was struck and in this case I went beyond “critical thinking” without an internal struggle. Czech theater history can finally cross “Sweeney Todd” and one of the “required Sondheim” pieces off the list of productions that are missing from the stage. It would be wonderful if it was not for the first and last time. And we hope that Prague Playhouse chooses more such ambitious projects in future years. They are definitely in demand.

Remember, Sweeney Todd will play in Divadlo Na Pradle for seven more shows: 13th and 14th of July, the 18th through the 20th of July and the 28th and 29th of July. Tickets are for the reasonable price of 350 Kc (300 for students) and you can buy them through the official pages of the Prague Playhouse or at Bohemia Ticket.

Some practical advice in conclusion: wheel chair users, bring someone to help you to the theater. There are several stairs leading into the theater. And the second thing (and this for “walkers” as well), if you sit on the side of the balcony, those seats belong in the category, as they nicely put it in London, “restricted view”, or in other words the entire stage is not visible which takes away from the enjoyment of the piece.


No Comments yet