There is a new Demon Barber on Fleet Street and the highlights disc of his tale will be a pleasurable discovery for the fans of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. However, it isn’t the best purchase for those who don’t yet know Sondheim’s musical melodrama because it is a highlights disc and, as fine as what has been included is, what has been excluded is sorely missed.

The recording, just released by First Night Records, captures the performances of Michael Ball as the tormented barber who goes over the edge in rage and revenge, and Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a pie shop where his victims’ can be disposed of as filling for her meat pies.

The production began last October at the Chichester Festival Theatre, about 60 miles south of London. It drew such a positive response that a transfer to London’s West End for a limited engagement was arranged. It opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London in March and runs through the 22nd of this month.

Recording Engineer Robin Sellars and record producers Nigel Wright and Michael Ball have delivered a crystal clear recording. It reveals not only the vocal performances but the sound of the accompanying 15 piece orchestra playing a reduction of Jonathan Tunick’s classic orchestrations (the original called for 26 players).

There is an impressive spatial spread and separation that lets each instrument – orchestral and vocal – be heard distinctly. Interestingly, the disc also bears the credit “Associate Record Producers, Stephen Sondheim and Nicholas Skilbeck.” Skilbeck was the musical director of this production.

Skilbeck deserves to be singled out for the work not only of the orchestra, which he conducts, but for the ensemble whose enunciation is so clear and distinct that you can follow Sondheim’s incredibly polished lyrics, catching every syllable and appreciate every nuance. This is of particular importance in any performance of Sondheim’s work, but is even more important here as the disc comes with a booklet that unaccountably provides neither the text of the lyrics nor a synopsis of the convoluted plot.

This absence is doubly felt. Sondheim tells most of the story of Sweeney’s decent into a homicidal rampage through song, but more than half a dozen of those crucial songs aren’t included here because a single 74 minute CD can’t contain them all. The original Broadway cast double disc album, staring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, remains the un-challenged must-have recording of the score and it runs over a hundred minutes.

(Other recordings include the full-score concert version recorded by the New York Philharmonic, with George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Neil Patrick Harris, the soundtrack of the motion picture version with Johnny Depp, Helen Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman and the video of Lansbury with George Hearn. I’ll not go into the Broadway revival of 2005 when Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone and Alexander Gemignani’s performances were undermined by the lamentable staging concept including having the cast play musical instruments rather than being supported by an actual orchestra.)

Missing on this new disc are:

- “Poor Thing” – Mrs. Lovett’s explanation of the fate of Sweeney Todd’s  wife
- “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” – the song with which Sweeney’s daughter Johanna entrances the young sailor, Anthony,
- “Ah, Miss” – Anthony’s surrender to Johanna’s charms,
- “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” – which introduces the character of Tobias who provides the final element of the blood bath,
- “The Contest” – Sweeney’s implementation of his clever plan of entrapment,
- the second “Johanna” – the orgasmic rumination of the deserving object of Sweeney’s hatred,
- “Wigmaker/Letter Sequence” in which Sweeney hatches his final plot and
- “Parlor Songs” which even Sondheim says are “a couple of twee English folk ballads.”

With all that missing, you can’t follow the story through the score, and the lack of a synopsis in the booklet is keenly felt.

This Sweeney is Michael Ball, whose voice is slightly higher than a full baritone, which was fine for the two Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals he starred in on Broadway – He was “Count Fosco” in the visually fascinating production of The Woman in White in 2005 and young Alex in Aspects of Love some two decades ago.

He’s a West End star of magnitude having originated the role of Marius in Les Misérables in London. He lacks the resonance of Cariou and a number of other Sweeney’s whose performances stand out in my mind including Brian Stokes Mitchell, George Hearn, Norm Lewis and Michael Forrest. But he provides a satisfying menace in the role and delivers the songs with fidelity to Sondheim’s score.

Imelda Staunton is also satisfying as Mrs. Lovett although she’s not going to shake the images of Lansbury or even Christine Baranski or Donna Migliaccio – oh how I wish I could add Jane Pesci-Townsend to that list, but I wasn’t privileged to be in the Eisenhower Theater the night she stepped in during the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration production.

Together, they provide a marvelous “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest,” the twin numbers that bring the first act to its memorable conclusion.

The supporting cast includes Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford. His enunciation is a delightful combination of precision and pretension which is right for the character of an unctuous toady when with his employer but a bully with those he sees as his social inferiors.

The clarity of the recording of the orchestra brings out some of the touches which were somehow less audible in the 1979 recording. The piccolo at the end of “God, That’s Good” jumps out of the speakers here, the discordant strings on Mrs. Lovett’s entrance on “Not While I’m Around” are chillingly evident and the only way to describe the reprise of “Johanna” is to use that often overused word “exquisite.”

If you already have the original Broadway cast album on your theater shelf, you may well want to add this one for its strengths.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

First Night Records Catalog CASTCD113
Running time: 74 minutes over 20 tracks
No notes, synopsis or lyrics – three photos

September 4, 2012

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street