A Creative Production of
Critics and audiences have debated whether or not Sweeney Todd is a musical or an opera. I contend that it is a modern opera and that opera houses will be presenting this magnum opus in years to come. I saw the original production at the Uris Theatre in March 1979 with Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury, Victor Garber and Sarah Rice. That production ran 557 performances and garnered nine Tony awards, including Best Musical and Book along with Tonys for Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. I also saw the revival in October 1989 at Circle in the Square with Beth Fowler and Bob Gunton. This “musical” proved to be an opera when I saw the Portland Opera Company do a superb production with Karen Morrow, and later the New York City Opera Company with Mark Delvan and Elaine Page. The American Musical Theatre of San Jose presented a great production several years ago, and The Reprise Company did an inspired production at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles with Kelsey Grammer hamming it up as the demon barber of Fleet Street. Christine Baranski saved that production. Most recently, the San Francisco Symphony presented a concert version with Patti LuPone, George Hearn and Neil Patrick Harris.
Other critics have said that this “opera” could never be staged fully in a small and intimate house; it needed a massive production with great choral work, large orchestra and top flight singers. Jay Manley has proven them wrong since he has staged this masterwork on a medium-size stage with some of the best young talent in the Bay Area. All of the singers are marvelous in their roles. The choral work is superb, and a small orchestra under the direction of Brandon Adams provides superior orchestrations of the thrilling score.
Sweeney Todd begins even as the audience is entering the small theatre, with the large cast dressed marvelously by Amy Zzadanyi-Yale in 18th century costumes going about their business: one selling oranges, another apples; a well to do family walking with their children; a young boy dressed in the fashion of the times saying with a great London accent “Good day sir” to people in the audience. The lights dim, and there is the wonderful choral work as the performers sing about the great city of London and the tale of Sweeney Todd.
James Monroe Iglehart (Ragtime at Foothill, Bat Boy, Memphis and A Little Night Music at the TheatreWorks) gives new meaning to the term "mad barber." He plays the role more like a man angry at the world than as a mad person from Bedlam. It is a thrilling performance as he glances about the audience, his powerful voice ringing out, doing full justice to the music of this operatic Sondheim score.
Diana Torres Koss (Mrs. Fairfax in TheatreWorks' Jane Eyre plus many roles in Bay Area Theatre) plays Mrs. Lovett in a light comic vein, somewhat between Angela Lansbury and Jean Stapleton. Her Lovett is is pure lustful for Sweeney, a frantic social climber and a somewhat naïve woman. Her voice is dynamic in “A Little Priest” and her comic screech for “The Worst Pies in London” is wonderful.
The supporting cast has outstanding voices, including Austin Ku (has performed in musicals at the Willows, 42nd Street Moon, and professionally in Texas and New Jersey) as Anthony Hope. He, along with Keite Davis (Dean Goodman awards for Candide, Into the Woods and the BATCC award for She Loves Me) as Johanna, are stand outs in this production. Lane McKenna gives a consummate performance as the Beggar Woman.
Mike R. Padilla as Judge Turpin has a booming voice and displays the lecherous evil man with great aplomb. Special attention should be given to Sean Patrick O’Connor (a junior in high school in Pleasanton) who plays Tobias. He delivers a touching, plaintive “Not While I’m Around.” A vocal and acting award should go to Martin Rojas-Dietrich as The Beadle. His is the show’s most treacherous singing role and he meets the challenge with both voice and mannerism. The whole chorus is stunning, with every character completely in their part.
Director Jay Manley, along with Joe Duffy's staging and Kurt Landisman's lighting, offers a superlative production of the Sondheim’s masterpiece. If you love Sondheim and are an aficionado of Sweeney Todd, travel down to Foothill College to catch this little gem.
Sweeney Todd plays through March 13 at the Foothill College Playhouse in Los Altos Hill, just off 280 El Monte Exit. The public can call 650-949-7360 or the 24 hour hot line at 650-949-7414 or visit www.foothill.edu/fa/. The next production will be Lerner and Loewe’s Musical Fantasy Brigadoon, opening on July 22 and running through August 14th.