Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

Portland Opera’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous masterpiece is bloody good musical theater for all


With temperatures teetering toward 100 degrees at the 2 pm downbeat, Portland’s Keller Auditorium enjoyed nearly a full house last Sunday for Portland Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd. Perhaps they came in from the “city on fire” in shorts and spaghetti straps because they wanted to see great musical theater. Maybe this was their very first opera production. Or they came because it was Steven Sondheim’s grisly musical-turned-opera, a tale of moral decay across classes with magnetic appeal to a diversity of theater goers.

But aye, we ought not worry about the why. Just know that Portland Opera conjured the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim and those present were treated to a stunning afternoon of entertainment and artistry.

Susannah Mars as Mrs. Lovett and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Portland Opera.

Susannah Mars as Mrs. Lovett and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Mr. Sweeney Todd is a despicable character for whom we are made sympathetic “in comparison” within the tone-setting first 30 minutes of the show. We meet a slightly despicable Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who recognizes that Todd is really former citizen Benjamin Barker, sent to jail in order to allow the more despicable Judge Turpin to brutally assault Barker’s naïve young wife. Judge Turpin is, in turn, served by the most despicable lackey, Beadle. All this takes place, relates Sondheim’s classic Greek chorus, in the pit of a city called London a century and a half or so ago.

The story, a Victorian penny dreadful turned into play and movie, was brought to musical book by the late Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote Candide and A Little Night Music. The tale twists through various evidences of mental derision and moral decay to an inevitable tragic ending. No redemption here; all will be engulfed in shadow save perhaps our two most pure of heart, Anthony and Joanna. It’s a bloody tale, this.

In Portland’s 1984 premiere of Sweeney Todd, directed by Bill Dobson (who won a directorial Drammy that year) in the newish Portland Center for the Performing Arts, there was memorable gushing of blood. Portland Opera chose not to splatter (but did we see a trickle of blood?) although there was little holding back on the horror and torment.

Portland Opera engaged stage director Albert Sherman, who collaborated in several New York musical theater revivals, including Sweeney Todd (in 1984), with theater great Hal Prince at New York City Opera. This is wonderful “look-back” at the original revival staging with its myriad facets contributed to this near perfect Portland Opera Sondheim debut.

There is no curtain; walls are stationary. Performers enter from stage left or right until Sweeney’s final exit through a stage center background door. Rolling scaffolding, platforms and ladders provide height for variety of visual focal points with sparse detached furniture keeping the stage open. Particularly effective was the two-story Lovett parlor and Pie Shop/Todd Barbershop building, which revolved for differing viewpoints.

If this seems to suggest a minimalist perspective, the commanding sepia backdrop drawing of Sweeney Todd’s London of 1845 helped provide extraordinary depth and scope and proximity. The compelling lighting design employed silhouette, shadow and direct lighting with great finesse and purpose, and with a costume palette of black, grey, brown and white, lighting drew the eye as would color. The extraordinarily colorful Mrs. Lovett was singularly afforded a kaleidoscopic garb in the beginning of the second act, a scene so close to perfection as to bring tears of delight.

Throughout, however, the super-text was a puzzlement as it was engaged for song lyrics and disabled for spoken text. Perhaps there was some artistic reasoning not easily perceived but audience relying on text had to pop in and out of their operating zone.

Lacerating Lyrics

Considered one of America’s greatest lyricists, and perhaps never more than in Sweeney, Sondheim is a consummate word classicist in modern dress. He twines words such as “Alas, I love a lass who loved a lad who loved a lass…” in an old English ballad form for a parlor song and gives Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney a ghastly, rhythmic angular patter song duet, “A Little Priest,” that is non-stop giggles.

Behind the giggle, however, this song above all bobs and weaves at the animosity Sweeney has for the upper class. He snarls at the human race having only two kinds of men: “one staying put in his proper place and one with his foot in the other one’s face.” This illuminates how Sweeney sees his plan to kill the Judge, and his actions leading up to it: “in the meantime, I’ll practice on less honorable throats,” he tells our dear Nellie Lovett who sees no harm in grinding up the less honorable victims for her pies as “times is hard” and it “seems an awful waste.” Sondheim’s scene in which Judge Turpin flagellates himself over his lust for his ward, Joanna, and then moments later sentences a petty-crime robber to death — brilliantly rendered by Kevin Burdette – drips with sarcasm. In this demonstration of inequality in classes, Sondheim irreverently throws them all into the same stew pot, so to speak. Is this not theater for all?

In his characterizations, too, Sondheim can be a bit retro: maybe no coincidence that we have a faux Figaro (Pirelli) and a latter day Papageno (Birdseller, Ryan Thorn, an excellent baritone) in this cast

Magical Musical Moments

Musically, Sweeney delivers all of the musical arrows in Sondheim’s quiver. No manner of seventh chord goes unused and he is particularly fond of the disturbing half diminished seventh. Formats range from choral recitative (one in exquisite quartal harmony) wonderful opening chorus, and solos and duets, which seem to be Mr. Sondheim’s favorite combo here. The Portland Opera chorus spat out the text throughout and was in superb choral and thespian form.

Kevin Burdette as Judge Turpin and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Portland Opera.

Kevin Burdette as Judge Turpin and David Pittsinger as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Cory Weaver.

An analysis of Sondheim’s theatrical genius would be a dissertation. If only one such example, however, were chosen from Sweeney it would be the use of reprise of musical theme and character. This is not an in your face reprise: ”oh the scene is ending and there’s a song from earlier to wrap it up.” This is a “don’t forget about me, I’m still around, remember, wink wink” reprise that adds to the ebb and flow of tension and the drama. Judge Turpin, for example, talking about his impending shave while sitting for his last time upon the barber chair, reprises the Pretty Women motif several times, reminding us that he is vile – allowing us to savor, with Sweeney, the revenge to come. The most sophisticated musical theater lovers get it; musical theater rookies know they got something. We share the magical moment.

Conductor George Manahan was steady and nurturing, guiding orchestra and singers through one of the tightest and most well tuned of Portland Opera shows. A scaled-down 10-piece Sweeney orchestration, used by Portland Center Stage in 2012, is well done but the opportunity to hear legendary Jonathon Tunick’s full orchestration is a great joy and the only choice as the foundation for the grand voices of Portland Opera.

Each one of the characters brought their own special vocal gifts. No weak links here. Alexander Elliott, playing the tenor role of Anthony Hope, has a sterling voice, soaring to great heights even though in his bio, he is called a baritone. (In fact he plays title role Eugene Onegin in the upcoming Portland Opera production, beginning in July.) Susannah Mars wins the prize for combined vocal and acting skills: from within her personal bubble on stage she held us with facial and physical attributes and then burst through with vocal strength and agility. Sweeney Todd himself, played by David Pittsinger, last year’s Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress, was a perfectly barbarous barber. Tall and commanding, he has a voice that penetrates the house easily, and is capable of switching from full voice to falsetto on a dime.

Mr. Elliott was not the only excellent tenor on display: Marcus Shelton as the ever smiling slimy Beadle, Steven Brennfleck as Tobias, and Mark Thomsen as Pirelli, were all of strong tenor mettle, and particularly Thomsen, possessing a silvery Italianate “ping,”which flattered his faux Italian character (he’s really a disguised Brit) in the middle of the first act. He and Ms. Mars, by the way, were the only actors who displayed a vestige of any foreign accent. Mars’ Lovett-ish cockney was a delight throughout. Soprano Katrina Galka (Johanna) made a naïve Judge’s ward, and after her early appearance, sang with assurance as her vibrato calmed. The beggar woman, Anne Allgood, took advantage of all of the turns of character and skillful lines given her, in portraying a woman driven to dementia by the violence forced upon her.

Too seldom we see the players on the field, and fail to acknowledge how they got there…how the front office pulled the team together. Let’s salute artistic director Christopher Mattaliano and his staff for their astute artistic decisions: lighting and scenery designers, music and stage director and all who pulled it off in the moment.

Put the definitions of opera, operetta and musicals side by side and illuminate all of the reasons that they are different or alike. Enjoy and appreciate the genres separately as an academic exercise; discuss their sociological placement in society over the years. Discuss whether art is “for those above to serve those below” (Sweeney, end of Act I). When Portland Opera takes its outreach programs to the schools, the children are enthralled by the composite arts of musical and theater. And, as with many things, children don’t know that opera is a hoity-toity, elitist art form until we tell them it is. So let’s not tell them that. Opera is for the masses. All art, transcendent of social class and demography, is for all. Ergo, Portland Opera is for all. Right now, they got the “best pies” in Portland.

Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd. Whatever you call it, this is darn good stuff.

Portland Opera’s Sweeney Todd continues June 9 and June 11 at Keller Auditorium. Tickets available online.

Daryl Browne began her music career as a flutist, pianist and music theorist. She completed her elementary 32-year classroom and music teaching career and now makes music around the Northwest.Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years. 

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