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Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Glimmerglass

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Greer Grimsley in the title of The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Greer Grimsley in the title of The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Glimmerglass

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Conducted by John DeMain
Directed by Christopher Alden
Choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel
Scenery by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland
Costumes by Terese Wadden
Lighting by Robert Wierzel

With Greer Grimsley, Harry Greenleaf, Patricia Schuman, Luretta Bybee, Peter Volpe, Bille Bruley, Emily Pogoreic, Nicholas Nestorak, Christopher Bozeka

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is dark, dark musical theatre. A vengeful barber returns to Victorian London, slits the throats of those who have wronged him and with his accomplice turns their bodies into the stuffing of meat pies. Todd’s London is as menacing as he is …

“There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it …”

So it is puzzling, disturbing and distracting that all of this dark music and action mostly takes place on a brightly lit stage in front of walls that are half white paint and half light-colored wood wainscoting. The scenery, by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland, does disservice to the powerful score. Instead of growing out of the core of the show, it imposes a vision on top of it. Holland might argue that the paint is a canvas for menacing shadows of the characters. But these are ordinary, gray shadows we see; nothing scary about them. When Todd slits each victim’s throat—and the horrifying screech of a high-pitched factory whistle fills the theatre—on stage we see a small bucket of red paint splashed onto a white wall. Suggestive? Yes. Horrific? Hardly.

The lighting by Robert Wierzel, is equally inappropriate for much of the show. Except for the last twenty minutes or so when the walls are turned around and the stage becomes black, the bright, white scenery comes too close to spoiling the mood. This production missed the opportunity to heighten visually the horror already in the score.

The original production of Stephen Sondeim’s Sweeney Todd on Broadway took place in front of a London so black, one felt like wiping soot from one’s sleeve. Even the New York Philharmonic’s recent production, though semi-staged, visually captured the terror. Chilling, flashing red lights overwhelmed the stage with each murder.

What saves the Glimmerglass production of Sweeney Todd—and saved it is—is the cast of amazing, dramatic singers and the wonderful orchestra conducted by John DeMain. (DeMain conducted the first opera house production of Sweeney Todd at the Houston Grand Opera.) The singers’ performances enable us to focus on the music, the story and, most of all, the characters’ deepest emotions.

Greer Grimsley as the former, innocent convict, Sweeney Todd, powerfully and believably sings out his grief and rage over the apparent death of his wife and the capture of his daughter, Johanna, by one Judge Turpin. Turpin in all his sinister self-absorption and sickness (he also raped Todd’s wife) is brilliantly sung by the dramatic bass Peter Volpe. Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst meat pies in London, has eyes for Sweeney and offers him a room above her pie shop. It was her idea to use his victims as an ingredient. Luretta Bybee (Grimsley’s real-life wife) projects her comedy and evil with wonderful timing and a fine voice. One just wishes that the latter was a bit bigger. Harry Greenleaf as Anthony, the sailor who falls in love with and rescues Johanna, and Emily Pogoreic as Joanna are both members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists program. The future of opera is stellar thanks to these wonderful singers. Christopher Bozeka, also a Young Artist, is a captivating Adolfo Pirelli, a barber and competitor of Todd’s. Patricia Schuman is a strong beggar woman, creepy, sad and funny at the same time. Young Artists Bille Brueley, as the oily Beadle Banford and Nicholas Nestorak as the boy Tobias Ragg were excellent. The chorus, too, is simply splendid.

The director of this production, Christopher Alden, can take both credit and blame for what works and what doesn’t. One wonders if he preferred the comic relief sections of Sweeney Todd to the macabre portions. The delicious song, “A Little Priest,” eventually became a music hall number complete with lavish and wonderful costumes. Pirelli is dressed in a sequined blue suit and sings in front of a splashy, shiny blue curtain. One wishes the rest of the show had been as visually dramatic.

The glorious institution that is Glimmerglass, a treasure since its founding in 1975, has not failed us musically. Quite the opposite. But it is sad to suspect that this cast, this music, this drama, would have been better served in a concert.

Sweeney Todd runs through August 26, 2016 at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York

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