TCO singers bring their best to Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney’

Reviewed by Sherri Strichman

Tri-Cities Opera’s Sweeney Todd opened last night (April 29) at The Forum to the enthusiastic reception of the audience. This dark musical thriller by Stephen Sondheim (book by Hugh Wheeler) is a departure from TCO’s standard operatic fare, yet it seemed to be the largest house in attendance since I began reviewing performances here.

The story: A wrongfully convicted barber, Benjamin Barker, returns to London. He’d had a beautiful wife whom he loved, and the judge who desired her had him transported to a penal colony on false charges. The judge also took Barker’s daughter as his ward and now wants to marry her (Yuck!). Now calling himself Sweeney Todd, the barber is seeking revenge on those who took everything from him.

From start to finish, this incredibly difficult score with complicated lyrics was made to sound natural and easy by the principals and ensemble (prepared by Eric David Frei). The orchestra was masterfully conducted by Braden Toan except for some instances where the volume was too loud and covered the singers.

In the title role, Philip Cutlip was obsessed, brooding, but perhaps a little overly introspective. The voice is beautiful.

In my mind, the star of the show was Jenni Bank, as Mrs. Lovett. Her voice is lush and warm. The vocal characterizations matched her personality, whether she was being the savvy businesswoman, motherly with Toby, seductive with Sweeney, calculating with everyone else. Her comedic timing was excellent.

Andrew Hiers was perfectly creepy as Judge Turpin, a voyeuristic man of menace. His voice ranged from dark and powerful in his self-loathing “Johanna” to lyrical in the “Pretty Women” number with Todd.

I had to keep checking my program before I was sure that the travelling Italian barber, Pirelli, was being performed by Christopher Trapani. I’ve always felt that he couldn’t act his way [hackneyed phrase omitted]. Apparently I was mistaken, as he was funny with great timing, and his voice was perfect for the role.

It’s interesting that the two characters to see through Todd’s persona and recognize him as dangerous are the two with the least brain power, Tobias and the Beggar Woman. Mary Beth Nelson made surreal transitions from the mellow-voiced Beggar Woman asking for alms to the coarse streetwalker — just a flash, and then gone.

Jordan Schreiner characterized Toby well with a high, piping speaking voice curiously at odds with his physique. His poignant “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” sung to Mrs. Lovett was well received by the audience, and rightfully so. His final moments (trying to avoid spoiler here) were chilling.

The young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, were a lovely duo. Jake Stamatis was a solid performer throughout. He sang especially beautifully in both renditions of “Johanna.” Abigail Rethwisch was a charming Johanna, although it is a shame her voice has such a wide vibrato at such a young age. Where is the center of the tone?

The ensemble was brilliant.

The direction by Johnathan Pape was excellent, maneuvering his actors through Joseph Varga’s set (with its mobile centerpiece), evocative of newly industrialized London of the 19th century. Other members of the creative team were Jana Kucera, costume designer; Michael Cole, lighting designer, and Danielle Baker, makeup and hair designer. David Lefkowich, the fight coordinator, knows how to keep a stage mob from looking like a mob on stage, and no one gets hurt.

To critics who believe opera companies should stick to operas: “Times is hard,” as Mrs. Lovett sings, and companies need to increase their audiences however they can.

To critics who believe voices should not be amplified on an opera stage: All of the TCO singers are more than capable of being heard without mics, but the lyrics are so much faster and more complicated than those of the standard opera, the singing so much more syllabic and with less repetition, that mics are necessary (sound design by Calf Audio). As an engineer of my acquaintance is fond of saying, it is not possible to maximize all functions simultaneously.

If you are a fan of the show, or of Sondheim in general, go. For anyone who is neither and would like to try something new, is it worth the price? Go, and decide that for yourself.

IF YOU GO: TCO’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has one more performance: 3 p.m. Sunday (May 1) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. For tickets, call 772-0400 or visit www.tricitiesopera.com/portfolio/sweeney-todd. Note: The show is rated R for graphic content and adult language.

 

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