The Sondheim masterwork Sweeney Todd slashed its way into George Mason University this weekend, as Virginia Opera presented its version of the darkly enthralling musical experience.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as he is known, is actually a folk figure that was the stuff of fairy tales and was a staple of Victorian melodrama. Sondheim has taken this raw material to craft both a gripping and hard to watch thriller. Packed with well developed characters and multiple storylines, it premiered in 1979, Sweeney Todd won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler. I consider myself a Sondheim intermediate yet a Sweeney newbie, never taking in this major musical.
…darkly enthralling musical experience.
We are exposed to Sondheim’s quirky melodies, and sometimes groan-inducing rhymes—challenges that the cast handled well. Here, Sweeney, a man unduly convicted, comes back and uses his blade to seek revenge and takes up with his enterprising neighbor in a delicious plot to slice their way through London’s upper crust, giving extremely close shaves.
Virginia Opera has made some curious choices. Musicals of complex vocal range have become more commonplace recently and in this venue we have the classical argument. Will they favor the voice or the acting? In a curious decision, the actors were micked onstage, creating a nuanced singing approach that was not subpar as much as it was technology controlled. Also, when a large cast has many microphones onstage, it can have a bouncy sound effect. Paired with the strong 28 piece orchestra, conducted by Adam Turner, the effect was unbalanced.
Ultimately, this is a story about a man in need and a woman that needs a strong man to support her and …have a ready supply of meat for her pies.
Stephen Powell as Sweeney Todd grandly held the stage as our antihero with a commanding bass and flourished in classic operatic poses.
Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s landlady and the maker of ‘the worst pies in London’ has an easy sway onstage with Todd, and her contralto voice was pleasing accompaniment. Pancella played her role more in line to traditional musical notion—nicely overacting with gesture and glance.
Other fine supporting voices include baritone veteran Jake Gardner as the nefarious Judge Turpin, and the bombastic barber rival Pirelli, played by Javier Abreu, added a nice tenor tone and quite a needed comic touch.
Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s set was sparse, yet effective, in line with the nature of a travelling show. There was an airy openness with the black backdrop, given soaring nature of the show and its motifs. Especially effective is the scrim outlining several backstage crowd scenes. Stage limitations made the several ‘dispatchings’ of the bodies awkward. The strong chorus was darkly clad for several scenes, used as a Greek chorus to comment on Sweeney’s actions.
Justice was served – along with lush melody, surprisingly humorous and bloody good thrills. As Sweeney bellows as he launches his plot ‘’Vengeance is my Salvation.’’
Look for the Virginia Opera subscription series at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts that allows patrons to attend all four operas for the subscription price.
Upcoming Virginia Opera performances include H.M.S. Pinafore in December, Salome in February and La Traviata in March.
Advisory: Adult themes and content
Running Time: 3 hours with an intermission
Sweeney Todd was presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA, from October 11-12 . For tickets to other performances in the 2014-2-15 season, call (703) 993-2787, or online.