Tuneful But Tame, ‘Sweeney’ Update Lacks Sharp Edge

Tobias Ragg (Nicholas Nettorak) welcomes diners to a trendy new restaurant on Fleet Street, in Stephen Sondheim's 'Sweeney Todd.' (Production photos by Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival)
Tobias Ragg (Nicholas Nestorak) welcomes diners to a trendy new restaurant on Fleet Street, in Stephen Sondheim’s
‘Sweeney Todd.’ (Production photos by Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival)
By Barbara Jepson

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Sweeney Todd, the benighted, blood-soaked masterpiece by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is a riveting spoof of Victorian melodrama that, when done well, manages to be horrifying, hysterically funny, and deeply moving.

Mrs. Lovett (Molly Jane Hill) and Sweeney Todd (Greer Grimsley) discuss their business plan.
Mrs. Lovett (Molly Jane Hill) and Sweeney (Greer Grimsley) hatch business plan.

Unfortunately, the incoherent production by Christopher Alden, which continues at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Opera Theater through Aug. 26, undermines the work’s dramatic power. What might have otherwise soared, thanks to the vocal caliber of the cast, the delightful unamplified singing, and the luxury of a 41-piece orchestra in the pit, was slow to achieve liftoff. I heard the second of two performances on July 30, which included a promising debut in the role of Mrs. Lovett by understudy Molly Jane Hill, a member of the Festival’s fine Young Artists Program. She stepped in for Luretta Bybee, who had sung Mrs. Lovett that afternoon.

Although Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (book by Hugh Wheeler, based on an adaptation of Victorian penny dreadfuls by Christopher Bond) was conceived by Sondheim for musical theater, it has been performed by many opera companies since it opened on Broadway in 1979. The music, with its irregular rhythms, mild dissonance, and classical underpinnings, ranges from tender ballads to the vibrant recurring chorus for the company, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” reportedly inspired by the Dies irae hymn from the Catholic Mass for the Dead.

Sweeney Todd (Greer Grimsley) doesn;t recognize his wife in the Beggar Woman (Patricia Schuman).
Sweeney (Greer Grimsley) doesn’t recognize Beggar Woman (Patricia Schuman).

Casting the musical with accomplished opera singers has its advantages. They are more likely to stay on pitch, and the coloristic palettes of their voices lend extra richness to the work’s duos, trios, quartet, and choruses. But as evidenced in this production, opera singers don’t always have the comic timing or dramatic nuances required of the leading characters, particularly for the rapid-fire patter of, say, “The Worst Pies in London” (Mrs. Lovett) or for some of Sweeney’s most anguished moments.

The play tells the story of Sweeney Todd (Greer Grimsley), an unjustly imprisoned, embittered barber who returns to London after 15 years to search for his much-loved wife Lucy (Patricia Schuman) and daughter Johanna (Emily Pogorelc). Mrs. Lovett, a former neighbor who owns a pie shop, delivers the devastating, if deliberately misleading, news: Lucy poisoned herself after being raped by Judge Turpin (Peter Volpe), the hypocritical, lustful official who sentenced Sweeney to get his hands on her, and made Johanna his ward. As Sweeney’s desire for revenge increases, Mrs. Lovett suggests a way to dispose of his victims: grind them up and bake them into pies. With such demented characters, it’s no wonder John Doyle’s pared-down 2005 production, which sets the action in an insane asylum, worked so well.

Judge Turpin (Peter Volpe) gets a shave from Sweeney Todd (Greer Grimsley).
Judge Turpin (Peter Volpe) gets a shave from Sweeney Todd (Greer Grimsley).

Grimsley sang superbly as Sweeney. If he never was as terrifying as Michael Cerveris in the Doyle staging, he grew more characterful as the evening progressed. Hill’s Mrs. Lovett was more feminine and natural than Angela Lansbury’s energetic, slightly dotty portrayal in the original Broadway production or Patti Lupone’s hard-edged Mrs. Lovett (which I disliked) in the Doyle staging. Volpe, vocally impressive, was properly menacing and lecherous as Judge Turpin. When he proposes marriage to Johanna while running his hands up her legs, it made my skin crawl, an effective bit of staging. In a well-balanced cast, the only significant disappointment was Schuman’s beggar woman — here more of a bag lady — who sounded increasingly strained as the evening progressed.

Harry Greenleaf gave an expressive, caring portrayal of Anthony Hope.
Harry Greenleaf gave an expressive, caring portrayal of Anthony Hope.

From its beginnings in 1975, the Glimmerglass Festival has provided professional training and exposure for rising opera singers. Five members of its Young Artists Program have credited singing roles in the cast of Sweeney. They include Harry Greenleaf’s expressive, caring Anthony, who falls in love with Johanna; Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s henchman; and Christopher Bozeka, the suave barber and snake oil salesman Adolfo Pirelli, who quickly morphs into a blackmailing thug. Nicholas Nestorak, another member of the program, was particularly convincing as Tobias, the not-too-bright teenager whom Mrs. Lovett initially treats with motherly kindness. He tellingly portrayed Tobias’ evolution from naiveté through dawning awareness to an apparent psychotic break with reality that leads to the chilling denouement. John DeMain conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra skillfully, if, periodically, a little too slowly, perhaps to give the singers time to convey all the clever Sondheim lyrics.

Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) draws the attention of Anthony (Harry Greenleaf).
Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) draws the attention of Anthony (Harry Greenleaf).

Alden’s production, with scenery by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland, appears to take place in the 1950s or ’60s, judging by much of the women’s clothing. Terese Wadden’s costumes are attractive, if at times perplexing: Johanna’s short magenta and black dress seems at odds with her innocence. Small British flags crisscross the stage. In this production, the action begins in a brightly lit room with wood wainscoting, where a social gathering or church supper is taking place. Alden adds a surfeit of extraneous activities — the actors stand in rows and eat robotically, followed by much rearranging of chairs, people, and the like — that distract from the plot. And that’s just in the beginning of the first act, before Sweeney sings an ode to his beloved barbers’ knives. Later, Holland’s room nicely becomes Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, and forms the backdrop for the lurid colors heralding the shaving contest between Signor Pirelli and Sweeney, aptly evoking a carnival atmosphere. But Johanna’s first romantic encounter with Anthony occurs on a couple of chairs; not a window or hint of the Judge’s mansion in sight.

In an onstage interview with guest speaker Jamie Bernstein in between the performances, Sondheim announced that he’s working on a new musical theater piece, to be mounted in 2017, based on two films by Luis Buñuel. He also said, in response to a question, that he wrote Sweeney to “scare an audience,” not to convey any particular societal concept. The title character’s murderous rage is indeed scary, yet what makes the story more frightening is the way it shows the dangerous consequences of festering bitterness and deception. Sweeney is ultimately murdered by Tobias, but not before he unintentionally kills his wife Lucy, the beggar whom he had failed to recognize because of her ragged clothing and Mrs. Lovett’s deceit. This brilliant musical exposes the problems inherent in judging people by outward appearances — which, of course, couldn’t be more relevant in our world today. 

Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Arts in Review page whose articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, Listen Magazine, MusicalAmerica.com and other publications. She is in her second term as president of the Music Critics Association of North America.

Anthony (Harry Greanleaf) selects a bird as a present for Johanna in the Glimmerglass Festival production of ’Sweeney Todd.'
Anthony (Harry Greanleaf) selects a bird as a present for Johanna in the Glimmerglass production of ’Sweeney Todd.’