I’ve been a fan of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ever since I had the great good fortune to see the original Broadway production back in the late 1970s. I’ll never forget the way the loud shriek of the whistle at the beginning of the musical made me literally jump in my seat, nor how the tumbling of bodies from Sweeny’s barber chair into the chute that connected his tonsorium to Mrs. Lovett’s gruesome bake shop made me gape in astonishment. That’s a hard memory to compete against, I’ll admit; the show was over-the-top spectacular, using copious amounts of spurting blood, trap doors, and the whole panoply of special effects available to a big Broadway musical production to achieve its black comic effect.
The Pittsburgh Festival Opera lacks the resources to recreate the original musical’s spectacle; nevertheless, it has produced a very fine chamber version of this whackily macabre show. Its pared-down rendition puts focus on the music and vocal performers, which I suppose is one difference between a production of this work as opera as opposed to musical theater. But this is by no means a “park and bark” rendition of the play. Director Tomé Cousin, a dancer and choreographer by training, has a keen eye for dynamic stage pictures and precise movement vocabulary, and he brings the story to vivid life through inventive and fluid staging that moves the action from scene to scene and location to location through a quick rearrangement of a few chairs on Hank Bullington’s spare set. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cousin finds clever solutions for actions that would otherwise require costly and complicated props and stage machinery to carry off. Thus, for example, in lieu of blood rigs, he has Sweeny’s victims spray a handful of red rose petal over their chests, and a simple but effective bit of group choreography establishes the workings of the barber chair contraption without any need for chutes and trapdoors. Bob Steineck’s atmospheric lighting design and Bullington’s projections work well in tandem to establish scenic mood, tone, and location and add visual dimension to the play, and the fine orchestra – conducted by Douglas Levine – provides a myriad of sound effects in addition to the rich and often dissonant music.
Cousin has also done an admirable job of coaching his performers into a clear and committed physical and emotional realization of character. From the opening instant of the show – when ensemble members Bill Townsend and Robert Gerold sashay from the wings to place white chairs on the empty stage – to its final, tragic moments, the principals and ensemble members alike use their bodies almost as much as their voices to convey the tale of Sweeny Todd.
Andrew Cummings is physically suited for the role of Sweeny Todd – tall, bald, with wild, crazed eyes, he looms menacingly over the rest of the cast. His Todd mostly broods and seethes with resentment over the injustices he’s suffered, but he also finds the lighter moments that allow us to see the man inside the monster (albeit a man with a very sick sense of humor). Cummings’ baritone voice is smooth and velvety, and he shifts easily from an operatic register to a more lyrical voice for a number like “Pretty Women.”
Anna Singer embodies the cheerful bustle and loopiness of Mrs. Lovett with verve, and she adds depth to the role, giving us occasional glimpses of her character’s emotional neediness. On opening night she had some rough moments, particularly with her first number “The Worst Pies in London,” which demands tricky shifts between vocal registers. Nevertheless, her comic timing is adroit, and she hits her stride with the showstopper “Have a Little Priest,” arguably the funniest song about cannibalism ever written. (This number, however, was one of the many moments in the show that I wished the production had dispensed with supertitles, as the text gave away all of the jokes before the performers had a chance to sing them).
Top notch performances are also delivered by Adam Cioffari as Judge Turpin and Robert Frankenberry as the Beadle Bamford – both deliciously villainous in the villain roles – and Adam Hollick and April Amante as the lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker. With his clear tenor voice and confident stage presence, John Teresi is utterly engaging as Tobias Ragg, the “boy” Mrs. Lovett adopts after Sweeny kills his master, Signor Pirelli, a character performed superbly by the remarkable tenor Thomas Cilluffo. Lesley Baird shines in the small but significant role of the Beggar Woman – hidden behind a mess of blond hair, she communicates the madness of a destroyed woman with a frantic energy and a powerful mezzo-soprano voice.
The ensemble work in this production is particularly impressive: not only do members of the chorus vividly populate the world of the play with a variety of idiosyncratic characters, but they also often serve to effect seamless scene transitions, as in the moment in the second act when they transform, with a few spasms of heads and bodies, into inmates of an insane asylum. Rachel Wyatt’s eloquent costume design helps both unify the ensemble and give individuality to each of its members.
Throughout, Cousin also places ensemble members on stage to bear silent witness to the action: they watch with prurient fascination as the Judge schemes to marry his ward or Sweeny plots his revenge. While the production doesn’t give any explanation for their presence in these scenes, I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that there’s a commentary here on the human propensity to see evil and chaos as entertaining. That is, by having us watch others placidly observe as Victorian London devours its own, this production warns us about how seductive – and catastrophic – it can be to sit back and watch as calamity unfolds.