I was really looking forward to Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at San Francisco Opera and, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great show. However, while Show Boat really worked for me on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, this just seemed like a musical with very good singers in a very nice setting. I’m not quite sure why. I suppose the decision to use amplification is partly to blame, but I also think it’s because this production seemed to emphasize the bombastic music and theatrics more than anything. And Sweeney Todd is nothing if not dramatic.
Plot in 101 words or less: We’re not in Seville, but Sweeney Todd is a barber just the same. However, he’s far less jovial than Figaro. Returning from exile to seek revenge on the judge who framed him, raped his wife, and became ward to his daughter, Todd sets up shop in his former digs above Mrs. Lovett’s bakehouse. After killing a rival barber who threatens to expose his identity, Todd and Mrs. Lovett come up with a gruesome way to source the meat needed for Lovett’s pies. Naturally, both shops thrive. Love, madness, and morality all make appearances, but mostly it’s blood, blood, and more blood.
Responsible for most of the blood and gore is Sweeney Todd, played rather demonically (appropriately enough) by Brian Mulligan, a long-standing San Francisco favorite, heard most recently in this summer’s Les Troyens.
However, the production is anchored by Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett, whose love for Todd drives much of the central plot. I had never seen Stephanie Blythe live, but, as she stars in the Met version of the Ring Cycle I have recorded on my DVR, her beautiful voice was not unknown to me. What I hadn’t realized is what a terrific actress she is, really selling numbers like “A Little Priest” to the crowd. [Side note: One day I’ll finish watching Der Ring des Nibelungen and finally post the long-awaited Wagner edition of my “Opera Plots in 101 Words or Less” series.]
Other standout performances include Heidi Stober, another perennial SF favorite, playing Todd’s daughter Johanna, and Elizabeth Futral, who impressed me in the smaller role of the beggar woman even more than when I saw her as Vera Donovan in Dolores Claiborne. Wayne Tigges, also last seen in Dolores Claiborne, seems to specialize in dastardly, predatory men, and his creepy portrayal of Judge Turpin is no exception. Finally, Matthew Grills, playing young Tobias, sang and acted very sweetly, especially on “Nothing’s Going To Harm You” with Blythe.
In conclusion, given that it brought Blythe to the War Memorial stage, I can’t really complain too much about the decision to host this production, but I can’t say it sells me on the idea of producing more musicals either. However, given the enthusiastic crowd reaction to this one, I’m not sure most people agree with me.