While the original, award-winning Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury Broadway production featured a vast set and 27-piece orchestra, the new John Doyle incarnation strips the show down to its essence, not just in set and props but in having the 10-member cast perform the music themselves, on the stage during the show. I wasn't sure how this would work out, and upon seeing the results, was utterly amazed that anyone could pull it off. This score, which I've seen, is tough, and to perform it competently without sheet music (except for the keyboard) or conductor, on various places on the stage while fully costumed and in some cases singing as well, is nothing short of phenomenal.
To backtrack: boyziggy and I had lovely pre-show dinner at Millennium (conveniently a block from the theater, and walking distance from our apartment). Our seats were on the orchestra level but at the extreme right, so I couldn't see part of stage left, but I don't think I missed much of the action. This was "OUT" night (i.e. queer) and there was to be a reception with the cast members after, which I thought was cool (I love SF) though we didn't end up going.
I knew I would enjoy the show from the beginning when a straightjacketed Tobias was unbound and then handed a violin to play. The integration of instruments into the cast was surprising but mostly seamless. A scene of Anthony singing his love to Johanna while she played cello and beamed radiantly was beautiful. And Mrs. Lovett marching along puffing along on the tuba was humorous. But more often, the actors playing the instruments were not participating directly in the current scene.
To accommodate this unusual arrangement, the score and in some cases scenes were trimmed. I noticed the cuts because I had listened to the original Broadway soundtrack so many times I'd practically memorized it. In most cases I didn't find the necessary musical omissions to be detrimental. However, the sparse set and absence of the famous trapdoor-barber chair did make some scenes potentially confusing to someone who was not already familiar with the plot.
The actors all did a fine job of pulling double-duty as musicians, but some were definitely better singers than others. Those playing Johanna, Anthony, the Beggar Woman, and Tobias were all outstanding. Mrs. Lovett I probably would have enjoyed more if I didn't have the voice of Angela Lansbury so firmly fixed in my ears. The title character, however, was definitely wanting, his voice not powerful enough either in song or speech to match the depth and rage required for the role. The Judge and Beadle were disappointing to me also; the televangelist-inspired reimagining of the Judge's character was an amusing modern twist, but seemed out of place, whereas the Beadle playing a younger and more sinister character than I'm accustomed to was slightly off-putting. Pirelli being played by a woman was jarring, and that character's primary scene was truncated a fair amount.
The staging was used to good effect when portraying each throat-slashing: The factory whistle screamed (as in the original), lights turned all red, and then the new walking corpse was given a blood-stained lab coat to wear for the remainder of the performance. In most of the death scenes also, an actor slowly poured blood from one bucket to another. This portrayal of grisly murders in a stylized way was simple and effective, and makes me realize that though this is my favorite musical, I may not be able to stomach the movie version coming out this December, if the level of gore I've read about is accurate.
By the show's end, seven of the ten cast members are dead, one has gone insane, and the remaining two face an uncertain future, with the only certainty that they will try their best to get the hell out of London. It's a body count that would put a Wagnerian opera to shame.
In summary, this was a very enjoyable and creative staging of the musical. However, I would probably not recommend it to someone who was not already at least somewhat familiar with the classic Sweeney Todd. For those who are, however, it's a real treat and should not be missed.