There are various ways to differentiate musical theater from opera. But when one encounters Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, simplistic labeling doesn’t apply. Sweeney Todd is a crossover of both genres. There are songs, arias, duets that segue into quartets and quintets…full chorus numbers that move the story along. This is a total work of musical art that engages the eye, the ear and the mind. The result is an intriguing theater experience, now being presented at Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.
But before you rush to the theater – and have the kids in tow – be forewarned that Sweeney Todd is dark, and the subtitle…the Demon Barber of Fleet Street…is to be taken literally.
Basing the work upon 19th-century English stories, Sondheim – with book by Hugh Wheeler – places on stage all the revenge, the madness, the gore necessary to tell the story of a nice enough London barber…until he was exiled to an Australian penal colony by a judge who lusted after the barber’s wife. Now, 15 years after being sentenced on trumped-up charges, Sweeney has escaped and returned to London – only to be told his wife committed suicide, and the heinous judge has taken their daughter as his ward.
Surely, that could – and does – set a man on a retribution spree. Vengeance may be sweet, but it also can be a rather bloodstained.
With direction by Christopher Alden and orchestra conducted by John DeMain, this production of Sweeney Todd succeeds on every level. The lone shortcoming was that soloists occasionally were placed too far back on the stage for their singing to project; fortunately for the audience, even operas in English have super-titles at Glimmerglass
In the title role, Greer Grimsley has the vocal and emotional projection to capture us with his justifiable anger, as he repels us with his unfettered revenge. And he humors us when engaging in levity with his partner in wanton homicide, Mrs. Lovett...lustily portrayed by Luretta Bybee. It is Mrs. Lovett who cooks up the idea (you’ll understand this is a pun if you see the show) of how to dispose of the bodies of those who fall victim to Sweeney’s retribution.
The entire cast is first-rate, but the audience seemed to connect en masse with Anthony Hope, played by Harry Greenleaf. Anthony was saved from drowning by Sweeney in their passage to London; shortly after they part – just coincidence, of course – Anthony spies and falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna. Mr. Greenleaf delivers with a beautiful voice…touching acting…and diction that lets him own every word. His performance and development as a character are enormously affecting.
Also outstanding were Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin…and Bille Bruley as the judge’s attendant in crime. Kudos are due, as well, to the ensemble singers. Their focus on the changes in tempo and their ability to create a unified, solid sound were exceptional.
It is worth noting – and marveling at – the fact that more than half of the main characters in the cast are currently Glimmerglass Young Artists. What a tribute to the caliber of singers now attracted and trained by this program!
Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays on selected dates now through August 26 at Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, New York.
Herbert Wolff studied under the guidance of Lee Strasberg and subsequently had roles with summer theater companies in upstate New York and on live television. He is former vice president of International Television Association and former Chairman of Massachusetts Advisory Council on Scientific and Technical Education. Herb continues to write, direct and appear in stage plays. For over 25 years he has been an on-air reviewer of theater and opera productions for WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
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