I’ve always considered Sweeney Todd to be Stephen Sondheim’s best musical. Dark as dark can be, it depicts London at its late-19th-century worst: a miserable, starving, filthy lower class repressed and lorded over by corrupt elite society against a backdrop of disease-ridden slums and skies choked with smoke. Yet somehow Sondheim and book author Hugh Wheeler managed to mine this grim subject matter for nuggets of musical gold, and the result is the most fun you can have watching people wallow in absolute misery for two acts.
Not surprisingly, it’s been staged and revived numerous times. The original 1979 production brought Angela Lansbury a Tony award for her hilarious turn as Mrs. Lovett, the amoral pie baker, and I was fortunate enough to see the 2005 Broadway revisualization in which the actors (including a tuba-playing Patti LuPone) also served as the orchestra. Tim Burton did the show proud with his 2007 film adaptation which emphasized the darkness, disease and gore – and didn’t mess with the music.
In the new production, currently playing at the Porticoes Theatre in Pasadena before it finishes its all-too-brief run at the Mles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, the Pacific Opera Project goes back to the original 1979 staging in a revival that stays true to the source and is absolutely mesmerizing in its craftsmanship.
Phil Meyer is an ideal Todd, all fury and blazing eyes, and Amanda Carlin is a delightful Mrs. Lovett, bringing charm and humor to an essentially repulsive character. Eddie Sayles is superb as her simple-minded helper Toby, and his rendition of “Not While I’m Around” is faultless. Timothy Campbell and Hallie Silvertson capably fill the roles of the young would-be lovers, with Silverston especially bringing the right touch of madness to Todd’s long-lost Johanna.
Alex Mendoza hits all the correct flamboyant notes as the mountebank Pirelli, who pays with his life for trying to blackmail Todd. E. Scott Levin is a perfect Judge Turpin, grim and humorless, and Robert Norman drips unctuous hypocrisy as the Beadle. As the Beggar Woman, Rachel Payne conceals her features under a veil, which has the unfortunate effect of muffling her voice as well.
The excellent nine-piece orchestra, conducted by Stephen Karr, occasionally makes it challenging to hear the singers, but it otherwise brings a richness to the piece that would do a much larger production proud. And the voices are top-notch, particularly those of the leads. Certainly Meyer and Carlin’s duet of “A Little Priest” is as satisfying and enjoyable as Cariou and Lansbury’s original.
As directed and designed by Josh Shaw, this Todd works wonders with a small stage, and the large chorus, like the orchestra, helps give it a big-production feel. Maggie Green’s period costumes are also excellent, and everyone – even the musicians – is appropriately made up to look malnourished, diseased, and mad.
As I said at the outset, this is dark stuff, but when it’s as superbly staged as Pacific Opera’s production, it’s mesmerizing.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Porticoes Theater in Pasadena until October 28, moving to the Miles Memorial Playhouse until it closes November 4. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (323) 739-6122.
Photo: Phil Meyer and Amanda Carlin (Josh Shaw)