This review was updated on Mar. 11, 2004.
It may be time to end the debate about the propriety of letting that most improper of musical heroes, Sweeney Todd, slash his way across opera house stages. He and his impish consort, Mrs. Lovett of the unsavory meat pies, recently stormed the Royal Opera House in London, that bastion of respectability. A few murmurs of dismay were heard, but the audiences ate it up.
The more uncomfortable truth is that Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol musical is not likely to return to Broadway any time soon, at least commercially — it’s too big, too musically demanding and murderously difficult to stage. Which is to say expensive. Fortunately, American opera houses been giving it a cozy home for years now, none cozier than the New York City Opera, which is presenting it for the third time, in the production created in 1984 by the original Broadway director, Harold Prince.
As is often the case when “Sweeney” treads the opera boards, the cast is a mixture of theatrical performers and opera singers — and the combination proves smooth and tasty here. The real news is the unexpected triumph of diminutive British musical theater diva Elaine Paige, giving a rollicking, thoroughly delightful performance as Mrs. L.
Although she’s not always been a critic’s darling, and is little known in the U.S., Paige is a major name in the West End. But she is primarily associated with the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber — who might be called the anti-Sondheim, for his massive popularity and skimpy critical acclaim. Their musical styles are just as divergent as their commercial and critical fortunes: Lloyd Webber’s soaring pop operatics are a far cry from the demands presented by the role of Mrs. Lovett, f’rinstance. Paige’s success as Lloyd Webber’s Evita, Grizabella and Norma Desmond was no guarantee that she’d be able to pull off this role, which requires a quick wit and an even quicker tongue.
It’s true that the galloping tempo of Mrs. Lovett’s introductory song, “The Worst Pies in London,” has been eased a notch or two, mildly diluting the song’s antic zest. But that minor qualification aside, Paige’s performance was accomplished and quite lovable. The actress’s tiny stature adds its own comic flavoring to the evening: Bustling around the stage, with Mrs. L’s trademark pinwheels of hair sprouting from her head like an extra pair of ears, Paige resembled a little toy poodle scampering behind her master, the hulking Sweeney (Mark Delavan). Her comic acting is lively without stooping to caricature, and she brings a touch of warmth to the role, too.
It is always a distinct asset to have a British actress in this role: Sondheim’s brilliantly idiomatic lyrics have tripped up more than one American performer, and Paige comes easily to the Cockney intonations that are just as important as a sure sense of the words themselves. A certain reedy stridency in Paige’s powerful belt is happily suited to the role, too.
Alongside Paige’s energetic Mrs. Lovett, rising opera star Delavan was oddly subdued in the title role — he all but evaporated during the rousing act-one closer, “A Little Priest.” Delavan’s rich, dark baritone did full justice to the music of this most operatic of Sondheim roles, and the man is a naturally imposing presence: Stepping out of the boat that brings him back to London to wreak vengeance on the men who rigged his banishment and seduced his wife, Delavan’s Sweeney suggested Frankenstein’s monster more than anything else.
The resemblance didn’t end there: Delavan never got much more animated than old Frankie. He seemed to concentrate on the purity of his musical performance at the expense of the role’s theatrical possibilities. Thanks to Delavan’s impeccably clear but flagrantly American diction, it seemed odder than ever here that Sweeney, in odd contrast to the characters surrounding him, has no discernible British character. (Such was Delavan’s clarity of speech that if the barber shop didn’t work out, you could almost imagine Sweeney giving elocution lessons.) And while Delavan duly raised his voice to an intimidating bellow when extremes of anger were required, he did not convincingly suggest a man possessed to the point of murderous mania by the poisonous spirit of revenge.
The supporting cast was filled with strong voices, almost all from the opera world. The exceptions were Judith Blazer, a talented theater actress with a burnished, pure voice, who was exceptionally strong as the Beggar Woman; and Walter Charles, a fine singer and frequent interpreter of the role of Judge Turpin. (For the record, the NYCO production includes the judge’s self-flagellating “Mea culpa” that didn’t make it to Broadway in the original, and a truncated version of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.”)
Keith Phares, as the ardent young lover Anthony Hope, caressed the brooding lyrical colors of “Johanna” with a bright silken baritone. Sarah Coburn sang the role of his ill-used, extravagantly tressed paramour with comfortable ease. If neither was able to fully animate these two-dimensional roles, the fault is not entirely theirs.
As the tender-hearted guttersnipe who inspires short-lived maternal affection in Mrs. Lovett, Keith Jameson deployed his clear lyric tenor to lovely effect on the show’s most famous balled, “Not While I’m Around.”
George Manahan conducted Sondheim’s richly varied score with affectionate attentiveness, as the City Opera orchestra smoothly navigated its contrasts in texture and tone. The amplification was generally unobtrusive and skillful, despite some ragged moments in the choral numbers. “Sweeney Todd” more comfortably fills an opera house than any of Sondheim’s other works; it’s far better suited to the State Theater than “A Little Night Music,” which City Opera presented in a woozy staging last year.
The Prince production, now two decades old, has held up reasonably well. It’s a scaled-down riff on his Broadway original, with similar sets by Eugene Lee and crepuscular lighting by Ken Billington. But it could use a fresh idea or two. The act-one climax, in which the partners in crime hold aloft their respective implements of revenge on a world of injustice, has become a cliche. Raising high the razor and the rolling pin, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett have begun to seem more dutiful than demented.