Sweeney Todd Is Bloody Marvelous

Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd has been on a roll in the last decade. It’s been revitalized as a musical, film and now as an opera. A new production of this tale of lost love, regret, murder and atonement is one of the many highlights of  this season for Opera Theatre St. Louis.

Ironically this opera about madness and meatpies has given Opera Theatre an opportunity to use some fresh meat and introduce some amazing new talent to their audiences.

The company has taken Christopher Bond’s adaptation of Harold Prince’s musical and made it completely new.  Debuting  director Ron Daniels, OTSL newbie set designer Riccardo Hernandez have teamed up for created an amazing production. Daniels has assembled a terrific cast (many of them also debuting with OTSL) while Hernandez has utilized  a sparse, dimly lit set with gothic trimmings as the backdrop for the production. He uses a lot of dark colors in Act One to emphasis the darkness inside the characters and lots of whites in Act Two to accentuate the blood which flows like water as bodies pile up. As a tandem Daniels and Hernandez have seamlessly blended their styles to craft a tight production filled with emotional resonance.

Sweeney Todd is a very warped revenge tale. Benjamin Barker was once the finest barber in all of London. He was happily married and had a lovely daughter named Johanna. His luck all changed though when the unscrupulous Judge Turpin became  infatuated with Barker’s wife, Lucy.  When his advances are rebuffed Turpin invents trumped up charges and sents Barker off to Australia. With Barker out of the picture Turpin takes Johanna as a ward and keeps her caged up from the world.

The opera opens with an escaped Barker back in London looking to rebuild his life while satiating his lust for revenge. Now called Sweeney Todd. Barker’s only friend, a sailor named Anthony Hope promises to stay by his side through thick and thin.

When Todd returns to the site of his former shop things begin to get interesting. There he meets Mrs. Lovett, who owns a pie shop that makes the worst pies in all of London. Business is not good and she is down on her luck. When Sweeney inquires about the shop upstairs Lovett brings him up to date on where matters lie with Turpin and his daughter. She helps Todd get back on his feet by suggesting he reopen his shop. She even has his old razors and clippers to help him get back on his feet.

With his shop restored Todd begins to scheme about taking revenge on Judge Turpin. He devises a means to draw the fly into his web and kill while he sits in the barber chair.  But before any of this can happen todd is sidetracked by an annoying thug named Signor Pirelli. A barber’s duel ensues which affords Sweeney Tood an opportunity to get noticed by Turpin and his number one, Beadle Bamford.

Matters become more urgent for  Sweeney Todd after the uber creepy Turpin decides to to marry Johanna. Through Bradford’s prodding Turpin decides to visit Sweeney’s shop to get freshened up before the big  wedding.  An eager Todd sees this as a chance to take his revenge but is thwarted by the arrival of  Pirelli, who  has surmised Todd’s true identity and demands half his earnings to keep his mouth shut. Enraged, Todd  goes for the jugular and slits Pirelli’s throat, hiding his corpse in a trunk.

Meanwhile, Todd’s friend Anthony has become enraptured by Johanna after hearing her sing. His attempted to woo her are thwarted at every turn.  After a local beggar tells Anthony that his love is a prisoner he begins to plan an escape. Excitedly he turns to  Sweeney for help and interrupts him moments before he can kill Turpin.

His intrusion ruins everything and Turpin storms off, vowing Johanna and Anthony will never marry. Overcome by madness Todd decides to become a serial spiller, cutting the throats of as many patrons as he can until Turpin returns to his shop. An opportunistic Mrs. Lovett suggests a diabolical solution to both of their troubles and a bargain is struck.

The blood and death come in spurts in Act Two as Sweeney goes all out to appease his bloodlust. Todd give the bodies of his victims to  Lovett who htem turns them into meat pies for an unsuspecting clientele. Her pies are the talk of London and the money is coming in.

The success of Sweeney Todd’s barber business allows him an opportunity to get closer to Turpin once more. In the meantime, Anthony is still looking to find a way to free his beloved who has now been sent to a lunatic asylum where she can be stowed away until the wedding. Anthony returns to visit Todd and together they hatch a plan to free Johanna.

As their plot unfolds things begin to unravel at an alarming rate. Subsequently Act Two builds with intensity as the carnage and death toll rises with the body count, eventually spiraling giddily towards a tragic and cataclysmic conclusion filled with revelations, betrayal and death.

While not labeled as a proper ‘tragedy,’ Sweeney Todd nonetheless relies heavily on the trademarks of tragic theatre to accelerate the drama, passion and vengeance. It’s an opera that is propelled by black humor, a macabre libretto and incredible performances.

As a result Opera Theatre St. Louis’ production of Sweeney Todd is a romping fun excercise in black comedy, tragedy and madness. It’s both delightfully bloody and musically catchy, treating audiences to a feast of visual sight and sound that is sure to please.

The cast never skips a beat.  Rod Gilfry is exuberantly powerful as Sweeney Todd. He is partnered perfectly with fellow newcomers Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Nathaniel Hackmann and Anthony. Ziemba is clearly enjoying her role as the foil of the Opera. Her vocals with Gilfry and her solos are wonderfully catchy and highlight the production. The baritone Hackmann is a star on the rise who is sure to be back on the OTSL stage soon. His voice is simply incredible.  Despite limited stage time, newcomer Deanna Breiwick leaves her mark with her poise and talent. Timothy Nolen relishes his role as the evil Judge Turpin.

OTSL veteran composer Stephen Lord  provides the production with a score that is both nuansced and pronounced as dictated by the events onstage. His arrangement serves as the perfect frame this entertaining production.

If you only attend one opera this season, or if you want to see an opera that is more akin to traditional theatre then do yourself a favor and attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd.

Here are the performance dates and times for Sweeney Todd

Tuesday, June 12, 1:00 pm

Saturday, June 16 ,1:00 pm

Wednesday, June 20, 8:00 pm

Sunday, June 24 , 7:00 pm

All performance s are held at the Browning Mainstage at the  Loretto-Hilton Center.

For more information visit http://www.opera-stl.org