Musical Theatre Review

BMC: Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

July 23, 2005 - Brevard, NC:

The Janiec Opera Company of Brevard Music Center presented the third full-production stage work of the season with Sweeney Todd. If you need any evidence this "summer music camp" deal is not a walk in the park, you should see these students at work. It's the work part that was obvious on this occasion.

Christopher Bond's adaptation of the book by Hugh Wheeler presents a macabre theme for the stage, with music and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim. The story and premise is a re-telling of the Victorian The String of Pearls, which was itself a retelling of a British myth, possibly rooted in truth; Sweeney Todd – a barber who murdered his customers with a straight razor as they sat in a very convertible chair and then had their remains cooked up in meat pies by his lover – makes for a unique musical thriller.

The stage pre-production opened February 6, 1979, at the Uris Theatre in New York. It ran for nineteen preview performances. The premiere was March 1, and the show ran a total of 557 performances. Angela Lansbury propelled the play to seven Tony Awards, nine New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, seven Drama Desk Awards, and the Outer Critics Circle award for Best Musical. Lansbury won wherever she was nominated. Later, there were two national touring versions (1980 and '82) plus a television version broadcast September 12, 1982 (a tape of first touring version). Since then, no fewer than fifteen major productions have aired, the last in 2004, in Chicago, Houston, and London, and at the New York City Opera and the Kennedy Center. So this story has the legs and appeal to make all the important rounds over 26 years.

From the pit John Greer conducted the BMC Orchestra; David Gately was the stage director. Without actually showing the effects of a grueling production schedule, it was clear that the cast, crew, and musicians were operating at maximum output. With one dress rehearsal, on July 21, this production was excellent in most respects and displayed a professional pace throughout. There were occasional slips, miscues, or delayed movements that looked like afterthoughts, but therein rest the magic of live stage work – stuff happens. The rule in such cases, as teachers always remind us, is not whether or not a mistake will happen but what you do after the mistake that will reap the most attention. Here, everyone pushed on with professional focus.

Yet the entire work appeared to be presented within an overall narrow plane of both real and spiritual gray. The set and costumes left this impression, the general range and character of the music left this impression, and the whole night mirrored the feeling of a narrow emotional envelope. It simply lacked the dynamic peaks and valleys we expect from theatre. The Sondheim style of composition also lends support to this general shade of gray. It had high points and moments of laughter, but that narrow range was obvious.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Comerford, as the Beggar Woman, again showed outstanding musicianship and acting skills. Baritone Kevin Murphy admirably played Sweeney Todd, and Katherine Altobello, another mezzo, played the role of Mrs. Lovett, Todd's lover and maker of the meat pies. Additional cast members included baritone Ryan Goessi, soprano Karina Kacala, tenor Jack Beetle, tenor Shane McDonough, and baritone Matthew Young. It is clear that these young actor/musicians are the future of the theatre in America – such is the maturity of their skills and commitment to the stage.

William Elliot, production manager and technical director at Stetson University in DeLand, FL, created the barber chair Sweeney Todd used in this production. Once the "deed" was done, the actor would simply move a lever, the chair would collapse all its angles to become a straight surface, the trap door would open, and the dead customer would efficiently slide out of view. The illusion worked perfectly, and so did the chair.

Aside: Bond's book is based on a similar, earlier work by George Dibdin-Pitt. The melodrama by Pitt had its foundation in what appears to be a true contemporary account of Todd's arrest, trial and execution. Bond asserts that while Fleet Street was the home of many unstable and unsavory characters over the years, "no one has ever succeeded in finding a shred of evidence as to the existence of a Demon Barber thereabouts." Ah-huh.

BMC's opera productions end August 6 with Verdi's Rigoletto. See [inactive 11/07] or our calendar for details.