A demonic barber, a dashing troubadour and a sage stage manager will all be passing through our town next week. Sweeney Todd at the Fox, Chevalier — Maurice and Me around the corner at Cabaret at the Sheldon and Our Town on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center should make for a varied weekend of theater. Because the runs of all three shows are too brief to warrant reviewing, let's talk about them now.
With a glorious score by Stephen Sondheim and a spooky book by Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the most-admired yet least-staged musicals of recent decades. Despite wide critical acclaim, the original Broadway production in 1979 never sold out a single performance until after it won eight Tony Awards four months into its run. That first national tour, in which Angela Lansbury repeated her tour de force star turn as the pie-loving Mrs. Lovett, was also a commercial disappointment. The first stop in San Francisco shuttered two weeks early owing to poor business. Which perhaps helps to explain why the Fox is only offering this latest version, which re-creates the 2005 revival, for four performances. But heck, you only need one. See it now or wait until who knows when. (I don't think Sweeney is scheduled for either the Muny or Stages St. Louis next summer.)
Tony Sandler will bring his considerable Belgian charm to the Sheldon for a homage to the ultimate boulevardier, Maurice Chevalier. Back in the 1960s, when Chevalier's love affair with America was at its crest (Gigi, Fanny), Sandler was the debonair half of a popular nightclub duo. (Ralph Young delivered the comedy.) On August 8, 1974, Sandler & Young were headlining at a summer tent theater in Cleveland for which I was the publicist. That night President Richard Nixon's televised speech to the nation announcing his resignation coincided with our intermission. The opening-act comedian finished his stint in time for us to pipe the live audio of Nixon's resignation into the tent. We followed the speech with an extended intermission — which was made all the longer when we learned that Sandler & Young refused to go onstage after such a compelling event. At which point the theater owner shared a few persuasively terse words with his two reluctant stars. Eventually they did appear — to a tumultuous response. A memorable evening indeed, and a telling lesson about our need for entertainment in times of national trauma.
But for me the most anticipated event of next week is the Webster Conservatory staging of Thornton Wilder's 1938 drama Our Town. No less a theater critic than Albert Einstein — yes, that Albert Einstein — wrote that this eloquent microcosm of American life "touches the soul like a miracle."
Life and death in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, are presided over by the Stage Manager, a role that has been performed by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Spalding Gray to Paul Newman. Hal Holbrook, who enacted the part on television in 1977, described Our Town as "one of the greatest American plays ever written, if not the best. It's a tremendously powerful, beautiful thing." Holbrook, who forever will be known for his definitive portrayal of Mark Twain, went on to say, "With some roles I feel a sense of ownership. But to play the Stage Manager was a privilege. I felt that I was joining a huge fraternity of actors who have played that part."
The same might be said for viewers. To visit Our Town is to join the vast fraternity of audiences who through these simple characters have come to a heightened awareness of the ephemeral and the eternal in daily existence. To see Our Town done right can be a privilege.