ArtsWatch Weekly: Steampunk Sweeney, award season begins

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s a brilliant beginning. Sitting in the audience you’re not quite sure whether it’s part of the music or some Victorian version of an emergency air raid warning: that long sharp shriek of a whistle that pierces the air and just keeps on slicing like the blade on a piece of heavy machinery run amok. Then the orchestra barges dissonantly in, and the chorus raises a clangor, and you’re attending the tale of Sweeney Todd, the closest thing the world of musical theater and opera has to a steampunk antihero.

Smoke-spewing factories and magical elixir: Toby (Steven Brennfleck) plays the crowd in Portland Opera's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Cory Weaver

Smoke-spewing factories and magical elixir: Toby (Steven Brennfleck) plays the crowd in Portland Opera’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which has two performances left on Thursday and Saturday at Portland Opera in a production featuring the magnetic bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Sweeney and Susannah Mars as the ghoulishly pragmatic Mrs. Lovett, is a musical tale grounded in the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, under whose disruptive rules and relentless sway we still live even if the rough promise it ushered in has taken on the aspect of a ghost revolution. Sweeney! Sweeney! He’s our conscience, our warning, our mirror. Plus, he sings. And that steampunk shriek keeps coming back now and again, just to remind us of what special brand of seductive, human-devised hell we’ve entered.

ArtsWatch reviewers Bruce and Daryl Browne took in a Sunday afternoon performance when the temperature outside was a sweltering 100 degrees, and report an almost-full house. “Perhaps they came in from the “city on fire” in shorts and spaghetti straps because they wanted to see great musical theater,” they write. “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.” Read the full review here.



PAMTA, PAMTA, WHO’S GOT THE PAMTA? If it’s June, this must be theater award season. The Tonys arrive in New York this Sunday, June 12, complete with national television audience. Portland’s Drammys follow up on June 27 in the Newmark Theatre. And last night, Monday, the PAMTAs – the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards – kicked things off with a big bash in the Winningstad Theatre.


To paraphrase Robert Wuhl as the wacky minor-league coach in the fabulous baseball movie Bull Durham (he was actually talking about working at Sears):  Theories suck, man. Sell Lady Kenmores.

At least, that’s my theory after a weekend of theatergoing that included Candide at Portland Opera and Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times at CoHo Theatre. Theories? Just shut up and hit the ball.

Twedt (left), Cettina, deChatelet. Photo: Gary Norman

You can’t walk around the art world, let alone the culture at large, without bumping into a theory or twelve. Essential to science, where they’re part of a continuing process of discovery, they tend to harden into dogma in the cultural, political and religious realms. In art circles people sometimes forget that theories work best when they explain what’s happening in art, not when they try to drive how it’s being made. And when applied rigorously to something as unpredictable and emotional as human beings, theories can create havoc. Ask B.F. Skinner’s kids. Ask Dickens and Voltaire.

Except that both are adapted from classics, these two plays don’t seem to have a lot in common. Hard Times, published in 1854 and adapted by Jeffreys in 1982, was a response to the pressures of conformity that came along with the Industrial Revolution. Candide is the legendarily troublesome 1956 Broadway-musical adaptation of Voltaire’s satiric 1759 novella, with glorious music by Leonard Bernstein and a book that seems forever stuck betwixt and between. Candide, closer in spirit to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels than to anything by Dickens, is a continent-hopping picaresque. Hard Times is also sweeping, but far more focused and coherent in its storytelling.

Under the skin, though, Hard Times and Candide are blood brothers. Each is a sharp rebuke in fictional form of a social theory that seems to map out the betterment of society but in fact can be cruelly detrimental to the people living in it.

Amid war, famine, slavery and even cannibalism, Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss posits his fatuous theory derived from the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”

In Hard Times, Dickens tests and finds wanting the idea of Utilitarianism as developed by Jeremy Bentham and others to meet the challenges of the Industrial Revolution. In the novel, the idea is pushed in a dreary Victorian manufacturing city by the equally dreary “facts, facts, facts” of schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind.

The idea that grand ideas are a pox upon the people is easy enough to sympathize with in a world bedeviled by everything from social-Darwinist economic theories to virulently clashing religious ideologies. Theories might be beautiful, Voltaire and Dickens argue, but unless they hold at least some semblance of connection to reality they’re worse than nothing at all. Even with the best of intentions (see: Russia, 1917) they can have disastrous results.


The psychedelic balloon ride in Portland Opera's "Candide"/Photo: Cory Weaver

What the Beach Boys’ never-quite-realized Smile album was to the 1960s, Candide was to the preceding decade. Notoriously burdened since its 1956 birth by a clunky book — actually books, since it was revised so many times that most of Lillian Hellman’s original material vanished, depending on which version is staged — Candide seems to boast all the ingredients needed for a can’t miss show. Its source is a witty, durable classic that’s at least as relevant to today’s corrupt politics as it was to the  pre-deluge France that spawned Voltaire’s novel originally, or to the McCarthyite America that provoked the original operetta. Its fabulous score features some of Bernstein’s finest music (some of which swapped places with the tunes he was writing around the same time for the much more successful West Side Story). Its creative team comprised renowned contributors including Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Parker, though not all at the same time.


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