AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Lee Blakeley
Presented by San Francisco Opera
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA / (415) 864-3330

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is widely regarded as one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest accomplishments, if not the greatest.

With Sondheim's rich score and inventive lyrics, along with the dramatic book by Hugh Wheeler (from an adaptation by Christopher Bond), "Sweeney Todd" is musical theater with operatic qualities. Hence, it's no surprise to find it at the San Francisco Opera.

The title character, played by baritone Brian Mulligan, is a barber returning to London in the 1860s, 15 years after being unjustly shipped off to an Australian penal colony by a corrupt judge who had designs on the barber's attractive young wife, Lucy.

Upon his return, he learns that Lucy had taken poison and that their infant daughter has become the judge's ward.

He opens his barber shop above a pie shop owned by his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe), and vows to find his daughter and exact revenge on the judge.

After he kills Adolfo Pirelli (tenor David Curry), who recognizes him from the past and tries to blackmail him, he and Mrs. Lovett devise an ingenious way to dispose of the body. It will become the basis for Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.

As Sweeney becomes more vengeful, more victims find their way into the pies.

In the meantime, his sailing companion, Anthony Hope (baritone Elliot Madore), sees Sweeney's daughter, Johanna (soprano Heidi Stober), held a virtual captive at the home of Judge Turpin (bass-baritone Wayne Tigges), and vows to steal her and marry her.

By the end of the show, which runs about two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission, most of the main characters are dead. The only ones left are Anthony, Johanna and Tobias Ragg (tenor Matthew Grills), the simple-minded young man who has become Mrs. Lovett's assistant.

The musical and dramatic elements are mostly present, but this production doesn't do justice to them. Director Lee Blakeley spreads the action across the vast stage designed by Tanya McCallin, losing much of the drama's intimacy and immediacy. Likewise, Blakeley doesn't handle the big choral scenes well for Ian Robertson's chorus. Conducted by Patrick Summers, the orchestra does full justice to Sondheim's powerful score.

The murky lighting by Rick Fisher sometimes leaves principals in the dark, and miking by sound designer Tod Nixon can be inconsistent. Lorena Randi's choreography works best in the "Poor Thing" scene, when Mrs. Lovett tells what happened to Lucy after Sweeney was sent away.

Vocally the production is generally fine, especially with Mulligan's menacing Sweeney and Blythe's clever Mrs. Lovett. The two of them have the show's comic highlight with "A Little Priest," when they evaluate the culinary possibilities of various professions.

Stober's Johanna excels with the coloratura of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," but Madore's voice is too dark for Anthony's haunting "Johanna," usually sung by a tenor.

The best received singing comes from Grills when Tobias sings the sweet "Not While I'm Around" to Mrs. Lovett.

Other major roles are filled by soprano Elizabeth Futral as the Beggar Woman (but she's not raggedy or raunchy enough ); and tenor AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, the judge's accomplice.

Although this production doesn't measure up to most of the others seen in the Bay Area since the original touring production with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn arrived in 1981, it's still worthwhile because of the genius of the show's creators.

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