Tuesday, May 29, 2012

SWEENEY TODD • Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical thriller has been captivating audiences since 1979, and has enjoyed not only theatre, but opera house productions from companies all over the world.  I read part of an article from a guy named Michael Dale that said, “Sweeney Todd is a musical when you wonder why Mrs. Lovett takes her bow after Sweeney.  Sweeney Todd is an opera when you wonder why the mezzo takes her bow after the soprano.”  Ha!  Regardless of whether you consider Sweeney Todd an opera or a musical, Opera Theatre's production of this darkly comic classic is marvelous.  Sweeney Todd also happens to be one of my favorites, and I love me some Sondheim, so please bear with me while I ramble for a minute…

Many people are familiar with the musical or film stories of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street whose victims wind up in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, but Sweeney Todd first appeared as a character in the Victorian "penny dreadfuls".  In these grisly publications of the 19th century, Sweeney Todd was a psychopathic barber, slitting the throats of his hapless victims in a weekly serial called, "The String of Pearls".  In 1973, this story was adapted into a play by British playwright Christopher Bond called Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  This version expanded Todd's backstory and gave the protagonist a motive for his fury.  In Bond's version, Todd was exiled to Australia for life on trumped up charges so the unscrupulous Judge Turpin could have Todd's wife, Lucy, for himself.  When Todd escapes, 15 years after his sentence, he heads back to London bent on one thing: revenge.  In 1979, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted Bond's version into a musical that won eight Tony's when it debuted on Broadway, and it's arguably one of Sondheim’s greatest and most intricate scores.

This production is dark.  Literally.  Against a minimal set with a backdrop of blood-stained sheets of corrugated metal, the ensemble, dressed in blacks and greys, bids us to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, giving us our engrossing introduction to the story, and one of many leitmotifs.  I got chills.

Rod Gilfry (Sweeney Todd) and Karen Ziemba (Mrs. Lovett).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The scenic design (Riccardo Hernandez) remained minimal throughout, including just a few small pieces that were brought on and off stage.  Like the corrugated metal, tinged in red, there was also this huge yellow-stained plastic curtain backdrop, providing a scrim to obscure a few scenes, including the masquerade at the judge's house, the asylum and the bake-house, to haunting effect.  Rod Gilfry is an imposing, alluring Sweeney Todd, and his rich baritone scares us when he's angry and makes us feel for him when he's in despair.  Karen Ziemba (saw her in Curtains.  Love.) squeezes every drop of humor out of the industrious Mrs. Lovett's numbers with her precise comic timing, and vocally holds her own in a wonderfully commanding performance.  Their "A Little Priest" is almost worth the price of admission, and they worked well together.  The young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, (Nathaniel Hackmann and Deanna Breiwick) sound lovely together and are impressive in their solo numbers.  Hackmann's "Ah, Miss" and "Johanna" were beautiful, and Breiwick's "Green Finch And Linnet Bird" for the first time for me, was a true joy to hear -- a clarion soprano, as opposed to the rather shrill ones I've heard before.  Timothy Nolen's deliberate and lascivious Judge Turpin knocked his version of "Johanna" out of the park, and Scott Ramsay's Beadle has a strong tenor voice and a great falsetto.  I've only seen two other versions of Sweeney Todd -- the original DVD, and the 2005 revival, and Susanne Mentzer's Beggar Woman was the most clear I've heard.  And most heartbreaking.  Also, Anthony Webb's Pirelli provided much flair in "The Contest" and Kyle Erdos Knapp's full tenor gave Tobias a sweet, innocent passion in his "Not While I'm Around".  Loved hearing his contributions in "Parlor Songs".  The "Johanna" quartet was also a favorite -- hearing Todd's hopelessness, Anthony's longing, Johanna's yearning for freedom and that crazy old Beggar Woman -- one of many beautifully executed numbers.
Deanna Breiwick (Johanna) and
Nathaniel Hackmann (Anthony Hope).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Then there's the ensemble.  *sigh*  Amazing.  I've said this before, but Tim Burton's decision to leave out all of the chorus tracks in his film was a travesty, and I'm sure he will be punished for this decision to some degree in the afterlife.  The ensemble provides so much of the frightening power in this show.  Whether it's in the Ballad of Sweeney Todd reprises, the tuneful "God, That's Good!" or the manic "City on Fire", the ensemble delivered these numbers exceptionally.  Emily Rebholz's costume design also stood out, particularly with the chorus.  In "God, That's Good!" -- when they are all consumed with Mrs. Lovett's delectable meat pies, now new and improved with "special ingredients" -- they were all dressed in black with a splash of red.  Genius.  In the scene at Fogg's asylum, they were all in white nightclothes with the bottoms stained with red.  Lotta red in this puppy.  Fair share of blood, too.  :)  They also made use of the aisles as patients from the asylum roamed around the audience during the final sequences.  And no doubt, those last scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Scott Ramsay (Beadle Bamford) and
Timothy Nolen (Judge Turpin).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The traditional barber chair that drops its victims down to the bake-house had to be worked around with this production's one level set.  Instead of the victims being dropped down through a trapdoor, they are carried away by members of the ensemble.  This is a minor complaint, considering my overall impression of the show, which if you can't already tell is a good one.

Under Ron Daniels' dead-on direction, and with a company of exceptional voices, and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit, this production is a delicious treat not to be missed.  And yes, there are spoilers I'm not giving away, cause that would be just wrong.  They are worth it though.  So, "attend the tale".  You will be very glad you did.


Rod Gilfry (Sweeney Todd).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
SWEENEY TODD

Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Ron Daniels*
Conducted by Stephen Lord
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through  June 24 | tickets: $25 - $120
Performances Saturday, May 26 at 8pm, Wednesday, May 30 at 8pm, Friday, June 1 at 8pm, Thursday, June 7 at 8pm, Tuesday, June 12 at 1pm, Saturday, June 16 at 1pm, Wednesday, June 20 at 8pm, Sunday, June 24 at 7pm

Cast:
Rod Gilfry* (Sweeney Todd), Karen Ziemba* (Mrs. Lovett), Nathaniel Hackmann* (Anthony Hope), Deanna Breiwick* (Johanna), Kyle Erdos Knapp†* (Tobias Ragg), Timothy Nolen (Judge Turpin), Susanne Mentzer (Beggar Woman), Scott Ramsay* (Beadle), Anthony Webb†* (Pirelli), Marco Stefani†* (Jonas Fogg) and Jason Eck† (Bird Keeper).

Creative:
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez*; costume design by Emily Rebholz*; lighting design by Christopher Akerlind; sound design by Michael Hooker*; wig & makeup design by Ashley Ryan; choreography by Seán Curran; chorus master, Robert Ainsley; English diction specialist, Erie Mills; GYA teacher/coach, Erie Mills; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis*; repetiteur, Adam Burnette; stage manager, Cindy Knight; intern assistant stage manager, Rickelle Williams.
* = Debut; ° = former Gerdine Young Artist; † = current Gerdine Young Artist

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