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Sweeney Todd

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fans of Stephen Sondheim's musical masterwork Sweeney Todd have had a number of notable productions to choose from over the last few years, including the high-profile George Hearn/Patti LuPone concerts (one of which was televised on PBS), the Chicago Lyric Opera production starring Bryn Terfel, and the Kennedy Center production with Brian Stokes Mitchell. Watching New York City Opera's mounting of the show, which runs through the end of March, serves to remind one of how fragile a piece Sweeney Todd is, how easily it can go wrong, and how great a show it truly is when - as is the case here - just about everything clicks.

That Hugh Wheeler's book (based on Christopher Bond's adaptation), which tells the story of a vengeful barber's bloody rampage while searching for the wife and child stolen from him fifteen years earlier and the doting woman who bakes his victims into meat pies, and Sondheim's score, which marries Grand Guignol with Broadway musical comedy, are now classics is established musical theatre fact. The show has a grand sweep - something that no doubt makes it of interest to opera companies - but at the core, the story is an intimate and character-driven one. When those elements are obscured, Sweeney Todd simply won't work.

That's why the Chicago and Washington productions feel lacking, and why the City Opera production succeeds. Based on the original Hal Prince conception of the show, with the industrial revolution dehumanizing and swallowing its Victorian London characters, this production (directed by Arthur Masella) knows when to play things big and when to focus in on just one or two characters experiencing titanic (if melodramatic) changes in their lives. Here, the concept doesn't interfere with the show, it enhances it.

That's what's likely to make this the most cohesive and satisfying production you're likely to find at a major venue anytime soon. The expansiveness of production - including Eugene Lee's constantly moving scenic design (set against an oppressive Industrial Revolution backdrop), the costumes by Franne Lee that clearly delineate class and economic structure, and Ken Billington's harsh lights - and its cast size (nearly three dozen people), this Sweeney is not something Broadway producers would (or could) dare to tackle today, and the show's stringent dramatic requirements might not make it ideal for most opera companies. Here, everything comes together.

That's not to say, though, that the City Opera production of the show is flawless. Among its missteps: the space's sheer size and difficult acoustics have a tendency to swallow sound and some intimacy; some wooden execution in both acting and choreography (originally by Larry Fuller) by some ensemble members can be distracting for those used to Broadway conviction; the piercing whistle continually punctuatating the action sounds like it belongs on a Mack truck rather than a factory; and some of conductor George Manahan's tempos border on the lugubrious.

But overall, the positives far outweigh its negatives. Or at least mostly, depending on which cast members you see. Some are the same at every performance: first and foremost is West End musical theatre diva Elaine Paige as Mrs. Lovett, and she brings a saucy comic sensibility (and an excellent voice occasionally reminiscent the role's originator, Angela Lansbury) to the role of the desperate baker who's desperate for Sweeney; Judith Blazer beautifully defines the mad Beggar Woman haunting Sweeney's life; as the lecherous Judge Turpin, Walter Charles, a veteran of a number of Sweeney productions, sings and acts well, but is never particularly menacing; Roland Rusinek, as the Judge's corrupt Beadle, brings a good-natured villainy and a terrific voice to his role; Andrew Drost's fine tenor voice and over-the-top portrayal help sell the Italian barber, Pirelli; and Keith Jameson, as the young Tobias, whom Mrs. Lovett takes in, sings his songs beautifully, but is never appreciably youthful.

As for the rotating cast members, Tonna Miller, as Sweeney's daughter Johanna, better connects with her character's virginal, conflicted proclivities and the role's comedy than her counterpart, Sarah Coburn. For Anthony, her paramour, Scott Hogsed acts the role more convincingly than Keith Phares, though Phares sings better and is more convincing as a young man "with mischief on his mind."

Most important, of course, are the Sweeneys: one is Timothy Nolen, the other Mark Delevan. Of the two, the tall and physically imposing Delevan unquestionably sings the role better, wrapping his elegantly produced bass tones around Sweeney's darkly dramatic music. From a strict vocal standpoint, he's probably the finest Sweeney I've seen, and listening to him sing is a pleasure.

Ultimately, however, Nolen is more effective in the role. His portrayal is more varied and nuanced, starting deliberate, even restrained, and then exploding in a frightening fury during the elaborately violent musical breakdown "Epiphany." And whether he's experiencing great joy, terrible pain, or anything in between, Nolen creates a compelling character. Delevan never really manages that; he starts explosive and then has nowhere to go emotionally. But perhaps the best illustration of the difference between the two is the comic first act finale, "A Little Priest," which Paige and Nolen turn into an exquisitely hilarious English Music Hall romp; Delevan just gets through it (and with far fewer laughs).

Nolen is the Sweeney to see if you can only see one this time around, but the production itself works extremely well regardless. It's been 25 years since the original production hit Broadway, and this version (scaled down from the original as it might be) remains markedly more effective than most have imitated or re-worked it; the City Opera mounting stands as an impressively shining example of why, sometimes, a show's initial conception, if not the only way to go, almost certainly works the best.

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New York City Opera
Sweeney Todd
Through March 28
New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, 63rd Street and Columbus
Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Schedule and Tickets: 212.870.5570