Great Score Overcomes Bland ‘Sweeney’ Setting


 Great Score Overcomes

Bland ‘Sweeney’ Setting

By PAT THORPE • Review for

A flat set disappointed some opera-goers, by Greer Grimsley's performance as "Sweeney" and Sondheim score offers compensation. (Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera)
A flat set disappointed some opera-goers, by Greer Grimsley’s performance as “Sweeney” and Sondheim score offers compensation. (Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera)

COOPERSTOWN – Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” has been described as “operatic” since its debut in 1979 and it didn’t take long for this musical thriller to move to the opera house.

John DeMain conducted Sweeney’s operatic debut in 1984 and has probably led more performances than anyone on Earth – very good reasons the Glimmerglass Festival orchestra sails with confidence and power through Sondheim’s complex rhythms and unexpected harmonies under his baton.

There is glorious singing as well in this new production, from both established stars and exciting young talent.  Greer Grimsley as Sweeney and Peter Volpe, his nemesis Judge Turpin, combine for an unusual bass/bass, murderer/murderee duet, the wistful “Pretty Women,” that will have you at the edge of your seat.  Patricia Schuman is pitiable and shocking as the Beggar Woman.  And Luretta Bybee is superb as Mrs. Lovett: coarse, mendacious, grasping, and completely at home with the musical theater idiom.   “The Worst Pies in London” become mouthwatering in her rendition.

All the rest of the large cast and chorus are Glimmerglass Young Artists and they couldn’t be better.  The chorus is essential to this show, on stage in almost every scene, providing running narrative and commentary with clarity and vigor.  With Sondheim’s astonishing flow of witty lyrics, clarity is essential.

Harry Greenleaf and Emily Pogorelc are outstanding as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, creating hope amid the carnage.  And in Nicolas Nestorak (Toby, singing a touching “Not While I’m Around”) and Christopher Bozeka (Pirelli), we have two dazzling high tenors to watch.  They first appear in the marvelous dueling-barber scene in the first act;  Pirelli, a pseudo-Italian mountebank (in a rift on Rossini),  loses the duel but  steals the scene.

The man-to-meat pie tale was an urban legend for centuries before congealing into written form in 1846-47 as a popular and lengthy penny-dreadful called “The String of Pearls.”  That work used the names of Sweeney Todd, Johanna, Tobias and Mrs. Lovett, and features scenes in a madhouse.  Dark Victorian squalor has long been a hallmark of Sweeney’s story.

Director Christopher Alden has chosen instead to set the tale in the bright, featureless space of a provincial church hall as dull as it is incomprehensible.  The time is post-war Britain, wobbling uneasily between Harold Macmillian and Carnaby Street.  The numerous Sondheim fans in the opening audience – many in full Victorian regalia – were not amused.  The blank walls also serve to highlight unfortunate longueurs in Hugh Wheeler’s book, particularly in the first act.

But inspired music can survive even the evil of banality and the second act improves as the set breaks up and gets darker, signaling Sweeney’s moral and mental disintegration as we rush headlong to the corpse-filled finale.  (There is very little actual blood, and it handled with humorous finesse.)

“Sweeney Todd” has a truly great score by the great man of today’s musical theater.  You miss it at your peril.

Cooperstown’s Pat Thorpe reviews Glimmerglass Festival performances for The Freeman’s Journal, Hometown Oneonta and

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