THEATER REVIEW: This ‘Sweeney Todd’ production finds recipe for success

Sweeney Todd

Barrington Stage Company

WHEN MOST CONTEMPORARY OPERA composers are a mere cyber-blip, there will be Sondheim. Unless we bump ourselves off the planet, centuries from now our great great great grandchildren will have “Sweeney Todd.”

“Sweeney” is an opera for people who avoid opera. It’s musical theater for people who disdain “Hairspray” and “Beauty and the Beast” and song recitations disguised as musicals.

The story, which is mostly in the lyrics, makes use of the conventions of Grand Guignol, but with no hint of looking down its narrative nose. It builds a tale of rage, human wickedness, grue and gore, spiced with generous dollops of love and hilarity. Highly unlikely coincidences are thrown in without apology.

The music ranges from the ravishing romanticism of “Pretty Women,” “Not While I’m Around,” and “Johanna” to spiky dissonances, perky vaudevillian rhythms, and angry, complex counterpoint.

Sondheim’s lyrical wit is so engaging that we don’t even care that these characters would have been unlikely to produce such verbal pyrotechnics. “Sweeney Todd,” music and lyrics, amuses, terrifies, nauseates, delights, amazes and activates synapses you didn’t know you had. It all hangs together. It is art.

Most review-readers know all that; but there are reasons to experience it all again at Barrington Stage. This production rises to the basic property in many ways. To begin, “Sweeney” demands voices, and Barrington stage has them!

This production has a crack ensemble. They have not only voices but musicianship and an understanding of their individual need to tell the story. Their opening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” performed with the stillness of repressed rage, delivers an impact that rivals the opening of “West Side Story,” which (as staged by Jerome Robbins) remains the number one opening of all time.

This production has Zachary Clause as Toby. He brings heart-melting musicality and an imaginative approach to Toby’s dependence, innocence and basic goodness.

It has big-voiced, big-bellied Ed Dixon as Judge Turpin. He makes us recognize, know the judge, hate him and pity his disgusting lust for the nubile Johanna.

It has Christianne Tisdale as the Beggar Woman, who (though she seems rather too young for this role) easily negotiates some difficult vocal writing and makes the character’s madness vivid.

Best of all, it has Jeff McCarthy as Sweeney. McCarthy has freedom of body, infused with energy, ease, grace, and power. He has voice, voice that can ooze over a phrase in a fat, rolling legato or trip along in crisp talkiness. (Indulging a bit more of the former might have been nice, but let’s not get picky.) He might borrow a smidgen of the ensemble’s raging stillness for “The Epiphany,” but his final yelp in Act II is breathtaking in its honesty and effect.

Julianne Boyd’s direction borrows much from the original and departs creatively when she chooses. Having a runway half-circling the orchestra pit is a curious decision (this is not “Gypsy”), but it works when Boyd brings the ensemble aggressively out of the proscenium to reinforce its demands.

Okay. Let’s admit it. This production is not perfect. (It’s almost perfect.)

No one should have to follow Angela Lansbury in the role of Mrs. Lovett. It’s like trying to sing “Over the Rainbow” after we’ve all heard Judy.

On press night, Harriet Harris had a rocky start with “Worst Pies in London” (a killer rhythmically), and she missed the likeability and humor one needs to make this tour de force play. Harris struggles with vocal registration, a problem built into the writing by Sondheim, and it wasn’t until Act II that she really demonstrated her performing chops, exposing genuine warmth (the flip side of Mrs. Lovett’s banal wickedness) and tossing off a spectacular rendition of “By the Sea.”

Shonn Wiley as Anthony is handsome and he sings well, though one may miss Anthony’s “weight” and the big, unfettered openness that has survived his having sailed around the world.

Timothy Shew as Beadle Bamford brings top-notch acting skills and a paucity of high notes to a role that needs high notes. On the other hand, Branch Woodman provides the necessary high notes along with all the slick, sleazy swishiness that defines the outrageous character of Pirelli.

Sarah Stevens as Johanna is appropriately lovely, virginal and ditzy, but her tremolo sabotages her musical numbers, and the tempo of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” leaves her scrambling to keep up.

The orchestra’s sound is occasionally thin enough to leave the actors unsure about what key to begin in. The thickness and variety of sounds demanded by this score are daunting and thus a problem for any arranger who attempts to cut the original orchestration down to affordable proportions.

None of these cavils should keep anyone from Barrington Stage’s wonderful “Sweeney Todd,” which runs through July 17. One should see this show yearly, if not for the art and entertainment, then for its sly reminders of the seven deadlies, its reminder of how readily evil is coated with a glaze of middle-class normality, and especially for the reminder that, on Earth (now as then) there are those who eat and those who are eaten.

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