SWEENEY TODD is a musical about a man who kills people, and makes them into pies.
Lemme just get a little more emphasis on there: Sweeney Todd is a musical about a man who kills people, and makes them into pies.
Chris Coleman's new production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street—the first time Portland Center Stage has ever tackled a Sondheim musical—opens with the ensemble milling about onstage, dressed in rags, only to be scattered by two cops in riot gear. The Occupy imagery is deliberate: "With its themes of the division between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' the story is eerily reminiscent of the political debates we are waging in this country today," writes Coleman in his director's notes. That's super debatable, first of all; second, in framing the show as an allegory for US class tensions, Coleman defangs the character of Todd himself. Sure, Todd is a "have-not"—a poor barber, he was exiled by a rich judge who just wanted to bang his wife; upon returning home, Todd learns that in his absence the judge raped his wife, driving her to suicide. At this point in the story, Todd transforms from a mere have-not into a crazy person who kills people, and makes them into pies. They don't call him a "demon barber" for nothing.
But this production's Todd (Aloysius Gigl) is kind of a teddy bear: Look no further than a punny song in which Todd and his accomplice (Gretchen Rumsbaugh) discuss how the flesh of different types of man might taste. Todd has just killed a man, and he's embarking on a plan to kill plenty more, but there's nothing particularly deranged or sinister about the scene—the tone is oddly avuncular, just a dorky little pun fest. Todd himself largely lacks menace, with the exceptions of a few scenes where Gigl's powerful voice is allowed to go full throat.
Sweeney Todd features gross rich people taking advantage of poor people; the audience doesn't need its nose rubbed in the fact that our current economic system does too. Moreover, explicit parallels with "current political debates" stall quickly—the text just doesn't support much (Sweeney Todd thinks everybody deserves to die, rich and poor alike). In embracing seriousness and "relevance," this show sacrifices fun. Can't we just enjoy a scary, gory show about a crazy dude who kills people and makes them into pies? It's commendable when theater companies try to engage with the world around them—I just wish Portland Center Stage had found a more fitting vehicle to do so.