Story: Benjamin Barker, a 19th century London barber with a beautiful young wife and an infant daughter, is sent to an Australian penal colony on trumped-up charges by the venal Judge Turpin, who lusts after Barker’s wife Lucy. Subsequently, Turpin rapes Lucy, who poisons herself in despair while the judge then adopts her daughter Johanna as his ward. When Barker escapes prison some 15 years later, he is rescued at sea by a young sailor named Anthony Hope, who accompanies him back to London.
Disguising himself as 'Sweeney Todd,' Barker seeks revenge against Turpin and his lackey, Beadle Bamford. He soon is recognized by hapless shop proprietress Mrs. Lovett, who convinces him to take up the razors of his trade she has saved and to open a barber shop on the same premises where he formerly plied his craft. Thwarted in his initial desire to kill Turpin, Todd descends into madness and wantonly murders unsuspecting customers, who then end up in Mrs. Lovett’s suddenly-in-demand meat pies. When Anthony reveals to Todd that he has fallen in love with a young woman named Johanna whom he has seen virtually imprisoned in her home, he enlists Todd’s aid in rescuing her. Todd agrees but has his own agenda, working to get Turpin into his parlor for a final ‘shave.’
Highlights: In a neat little coincidence that would make Charles Dickens proud, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ sensational premiere production of the multiple Tony Award-winning 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler is directed by Ron Daniels. In 1973 Daniels had collaborated with his former acting colleague, Christopher Bond, on a dramatic adaptation of the grisly English folk tale that debuted in a penny dreadful novel in 1845 titled Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street or The String of Pearls.
As Daniels describes in his program notes, Sondheim was traveling through England at the time and saw their new production in Stoke-on-Trent in the English Midlands. Six years later, Sondheim’s brilliant musical version, with a book by Wheeler to accompany Sondheim’s music and lyrics, opened on Broadway, where it garnered multiple Tony Awards.
It’s been subsequently performed not only in theaters but in renowned opera houses, including the New York City Opera. Now, two years after OTSL presented its first Sondheim effort, A Little Night Music, it has mounted an exhilarating, engaging and absorbing presentation that is top-notch and consuming in every respect.
Other Info: Rod Gilfry, who sang the title role in a Parisian production last year at the Theatre du Chatelet, is commanding as the tortured and brooding Todd. His imposing figure brings a physical menace to the dead-eyed titular character that is matched with his powerful and resonating bass-baritone voice. His is just one of a cadre of beautiful voices that fill the Browning Mainstage with clarity and purpose on Sondheim’s intricate and beguiling melodies.
Karen Ziemba, like Gilfry making her OTSL debut, combines her clear and precise mezzo-soprano with a deft gift for comedy as the practical if addled Mrs. Lovett. She shares a charming chemistry with Gilfry, particularly on the Act I curtain-closer, A Little Priest, in which they cleverly discuss how the occupations of their victims may taste to the uncultivated palate, or the light-hearted By the Sea in Act II in which she dreams of an idyllic existence for her and Todd.
Strong supporting work is provided by baritone Nathaniel Hackmann as the earnest young sailor Anthony Hope, who charms on duets with gifted soprano Deanna Breiwick as his love-at-first-sight desire, Johanna. Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer makes a powerful OTSL debut as the scraggly beggar woman who may know more than is apparent, and tenor Kyle Erdos-Knapp, a Gerdine Young Artist performer, is delightful as the loyal orphan Tobias Ragg.
Also contributing are Timothy Nolen, whose deep, echoing bass-baritone adds a sinister flair to the hypocritical Judge Turpin; tenor Scott Ramsay as the oafish Beadle Bramford; and Gerdine Young Artist Anthony Webb, whose pure tenor brings comic presence to the role of scheming con man Signor Pirelli. Jason Eck and Marco Stefani shine in small parts as a kindly birdkeeper and the dastardly head of an insane asylum, respectively.
Technically, the presentation is arresting in its stark and ominous simplicity, especially when performers roam the audience at intervals such as when deranged inmates escape the asylum. Ashley Ryan’s marvelously ghastly wig and makeup design enhances the macabre effect, as does Riccardo Hernandez’ set design that has curtains awash in crimson gore that are enhanced with Christopher Akerlind’s lighting. Emily Rebholz’s costumes continue that theme with inmates shrouded in dingy white uniforms sprayed with blood, while various characters are dressed in attire that befits their respective social classes.
Daniels’ precise, focused direction belies the show’s three-hour running time in conjunction with Stephen Lord’s spirited conducting of a finely attuned orchestra. Really, it’s a treat for all the senses, a smart combination of technical proficiency and the expert, inspired genius of Sondheim that invigorates the morbidly fascinating tale of one of London’s apocryphal urban legends.
Opera: Sweeney Todd
Group: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: May 30, June 1, 7, 12, 16, 20, 24
Tickets: From $25 to $120; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard