Spring, 2016

The San Francisco Opera promoted its production of Sweeney Todd (Sept. 12-29, 2015) exclaiming, “It's melodic. It's macabre. It's a bloody good story.” While it surely did provide impressive evidence of the melodic riches of Sondheim’s score and emphasized the macabre nature of the piece, it fell a bit short on the storytelling side of the coin. For the second time in my memory, an otherwise fine production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's masterpiece was beset with sound system problems.

While the performance of the sound department was not as bad as at the opening night of the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration production, it was an evening-long distraction. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "some performances [were] loud and screechy and others barely audible and still others emerging at a disembodied distance from the performer" to which he added that the frequent screech of feedback was "the crowning insult."

Still, Sweeney is Sweeney, and this, like every high-quality production of the piece, was a grand evening of musical theatre. It was performed at the 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House with English supertitles above the proscenium. 

Brian Mulligan played the Demon Barber with a booming, if slightly cottony voice. His work on "A Little Priest" was superb, but his "Epiphany" was more a logical discovery than a sudden flash of insight. Rather than the instantaneous transformation that Sondheim’s music provides at the line "But not for long!" he worked it out piece by piece over the duration of the song. This approach seemed to fit with the alternate ending Sondheim describes in Finishing the Hat, intended to avoid tension–releasing applause before "A Little Priest." 

Stephanie Blythe delivered all the humor, craftiness and borderline schizophrenia of Mrs. Lovett in a performance of grand musicianship as well as delightful acting. Indeed, the night might well have gone under the title Mrs. Lovett: The Body Baker of Fleet Street so impressive was her performance. She injected a blast of energy into the production with each of her entrances, landed all of the laugh lines in "The Worst Pies in London," established all her plot points and showed clear motivations for the evolution of her role.  

Supporting roles drew a mixed bag of reviews. The best of the bunch was Matthew Grills as a slow-to-suspect but finally convinced Tobias, who in every way deserved Mrs. Lovett’s "What a sweet child it is." His "Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir" was an effective 19th Century commercial, while his "Not While I’m Around" was touching. His final dispatching of Sweeney was quite shocking, I’m sure, to those who didn’t know it was coming. 

Supporting it all were the instrumentalists who occupied no fewer than 46 chairs in the pit under the baton of Patrick Summers. They filled the hall with Sondheim’s sonority.  

Production Designer Tanya McCallin’s gigantic set — originated at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris (April-May, 2011) where this production began before a presentation by the Houston Grand Opera (April 2015) — had a metallic bridge that slid forward and rearward when pushed by stagehands. That set failed, however, to serve as a story-telling tool, with Mrs. Lovett’s oven a nondescript door that wasn’t particularly visible stage right and the geography of the path from Sweeney’s fatal chair to Mrs. Lovett’s basement cookhouse not well defined. Some stage fog simulating smoke, but it wasn’t connected to the sung alarms of "City on Fire."

Most memorable were the buckets of blood Mrs. Lovett dumped into sewer pits in the floor, the spurting of more blood with each throat slit by Sweeney and the show curtain, a gray map of London in Sweeney’s day. When the audience returned from intermission, the curtain was the same map, — with blood dripping from Fleet Street into a reddened River Thames.

The supertitle screen above that show curtain read "Sweeney Todd – Stephen Sondheim" with nary a mention of book writer Hugh Wheeler. The same was true of the magazine sized program which mentioned Wheeler only twice, once as contractually required on the credits page, and once in frequent TSR  contributor Mark Eden Horowitz’s superb background article. As Sondheim is always so careful to share credit with his collaborators, this seems a shame. [TSR]

Sweeney Todd by the Bay​

Blythe’s Lovett was “The Body Baker of Fleet Street”