Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of Sweeney Todd has been entertaining audiences for nearly forty years, and last night’s performance of the work by Pittsburgh Festival Opera did much to explain the show’s enduring popularity. In Sondheim’s creation of the musical, he used a 1973 play by Christopher Bond as his inspiration, but the title character dates as far back as the 1840s, when Victorian era readers of popular fiction, called “penny dreadfuls,” were introduced to him in a serialized weekly magazine story called “The String of Pearls.” A few dramatic adaptations of the “urban legend” span the 1860s to the 1960s, but Sondheim’s musical spin on the macabre tale is the one which will probably still be performed forty years from now.
The award-winning “thriller,” probably the darkest musical ever written, tells the morbid tale of a Victorian era barber who returns to London after years of Australian exile, seeking revenge on the corrupt judge who banished him in order to pursue his wife. When it seems revenge might elude him, Sweeney swears vengeance on all, using the tools of his trade to slash the throats of as many people as he can, while his business partner, Mrs. Lovett, a baker, cooks the bodies into meat pies for sale to an unsuspecting public. But that lovely lady has been keeping serious secrets from Sweeney, regarding awful doings during his absence, and she lives to regret it. Many plot twists and characters make for a busy couple of oddly engaging hours of entertainment. Sweeney Todd, considered by many to be Sondheim’s greatest score, is almost operatic in spots, and of great intensity – musically and dramatically. Whether that’s all true is, as always, in the ear of the beholder, but there is no denying that the work is one of the most successful achievements in American musical theater in the last half century – possibly longer.
As presented by Pittsburgh Festival Opera, Sweeney Todd is, for the most part, a successful production of the classic. In the main, the staging is effective, although a few intensely dramatic moments fall a little flat, easily explained by the limited stage trappings of the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston. The costuming and lighting leave little to be desired, and the clever use of projections is almost always successful. One or two shortcuts are taken, but the brief self-flagellation scene, which has occasionally ruffled feathers and been removed from some productions, remains. There is a large amount of talent in the cast, and the behind-the-scenes orchestra, conducted by Douglas Levine, is well up to providing the instrumental support for the singers.
Baritone Andrew Cummings was effective as the brooding, morose, murderous barber, Benjamin Barker (alias Sweeney Todd). He certainly looked the part, acted it well, and sang with a steady voice which gained in mellow quality and quantity as the performance progressed. His enunciation of the text was quite distinct, which came in handy when the surtitles projected above the stage failed. This technical snafu created a problem for some of the other singers, but every word he sang was distinctly discernible, though they seemed to lack any trace of the English accent that most of the others adopted. Anna Singer was quite in her element as Mrs. Lovett, and gave the best performance I’ve heard her offer to date. Her singing and acting of the unique character were highlights of the evening, and she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself. In a few lighter-hearted spots, she hopped about most delightfully, resembling Mrs. Garrett from “The Facts of Life” at last driven to depravity by Blair Warner and Tootie.
An outstanding performance was given by Adam Hollick, as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who rescues Sweeney at sea during his escape back to England, and who falls in love with the barber’s beautiful young daughter. He acted the part with enthusiastic vivacity, sang very well, and, while maybe such things shouldn’t matter, his “movie star” good looks certainly didn’t detract from his appeal. John Teresi, a young tenor, was riveting as Tobias Ragg, a character referred to as a “simpleton” in the book; a young man who works first for a con-man, then Mrs. Lovett, but is not so simple that he cannot sense and fear the sinister side of Sweeney. The part is sometimes sung by a boy soprano, and he looked much like one, but the quality of his singing and acting made it clear that he is a very young adult with a promising future.
Adam Cioffari, as the evil Judge Turpin, sang and acted the part quite acceptably, but was a bit too youthful looking to present a thoroughly convincing portrayal of the role. The make-up department could easily make him look at least the same age as Sweeney, if not older. The versatile Robert Frankenberry, as the judge’s equally slimy Beadle Bamford, demonstrated a clear conception of his part, and sang with an occasional over-abundance of tone. This was noticeable a few times with some of the other singers in concerted numbers. In ensembles where a few characters should have sung in equal unison, the results sounded like singing contests.
Lesley Baird delivered an intense performance of the “Beggar Woman,” Lucy Barker, Sweeney’s wife, cast aside by the Judge years before, reduced to a crone in rags, unrecognized by her husband. April Amante was young Johanna, her daughter, claimed by the Judge as his ward – and prospective bride, locked up in Bedlam so that Anthony can’t romance her. Both sang their roles with voices of fine quality – and quantity. Thomas Cilluffo, in the small role of Adolfo Pirelli, the faux-“Eyetalian” hair tonic swindler, sang and acted in a manner that made one wish the part were larger.
The ensemble contained a large array of talent – Alex Longnecker, Maggie Burr, Jenne Carey, Lori Carrau, Kasey Cwynar-Foye, Robert Gerold (who displayed his powerful singing and acting abilities as Lockdown in A Gathering of Sons), Angela Joy Lamb, Elise Mark, Jordan Speranzo, Bill Townsend and Michele Renee Williams all rounded out a strong cast.
The audience was moderately large, but should have filled every seat. At the close of the performance, those in attendance expressed enthusiasm, loud and long, and in no uncertain terms.
Sweeney Todd will receive four repetitions throughout this month. For dates, performance times, tickets and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
The Production Team of Sweeney Todd –
Music and Lyrics, Stephen Sondheim; Book, Hugh Wheeler; Director, Tomé Cousin; Conductor, Douglas Levine; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Costume Design, Rachel Wyatt; Lighting Design, Bob Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Jina Pounds; Assistant Director, Ian Silverman; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Francesca Mamlin and Katy Click
Photography – Patti Brahim