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Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

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

by DARYL BROWNE AND BRUCE BROWNE

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.

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