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Masterpiece Theater

Rich, resonant Sweeney Todd is a modern American opera

It's almost inconceivable to call a musical that's not even 30 years old a "masterpiece," but Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979) is most definitely that. More than a "musical," this rich, resonant work is a modern American opera, the best one we've had since Jerome Kern's Show Boat (1927) and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935). Absolute in its vision, Sweeney Todd is made for adults, unlike much contemporary junk. Sondheim irrevocably changed the American musical -- and Sweeney Todd was one of the shows that did it.

Sondheim is justly famous for the intellectual brilliance of his lyrics, the audacious wit and wisdom inherent in those internal rhymes. But Sweeney has something special, an epic musical sweep that was once the province of great symphonies. The interweaving of themes and the peerless matching of music to character gives this score an "operatic" treatment. It is breathtakingly beautiful and complex, using, for example, a motif from "Dies Irae," the medieval Latin hymn describing judgment day, in a scene about Sweeney Todd's skewed sense of justice. This score's too good for Broadway.

Sweeney Todd is cold, steely, dark and grim, like the beloved razors of our eponymous hero, also known as the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street." We admire the show for its clever structure, for its Grand Guignol postmodernism, for the Shakespearean fury of its revenge melodrama, for its masterful blend of low comedy and tragedy. But it's a brittle worldview.

Excellent casting: Rebekah Dahl and Luther Chakurian
Courtesy of Masquerade Theatre
Excellent casting: Rebekah Dahl and Luther Chakurian

Details

Through October 8. $26 - $46.
The Hobby Center, Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525.

Masquerade Theatre's production does not disappoint. Falsely accused, Sweeney Todd (Luther Chakurian) has escaped from prison in Australia and returns to Victorian London to get revenge on the judge who sent him to jail; raped his wife and drove her to suicide; and kidnapped his daughter to raise as his ward, with lascivious intentions to marry her himself. Patiently waiting all these years for his return, the widow Mrs. Lovett (Rebekah Dahl), who has always loved Sweeney and runs an unsuccessful bakery, takes him in. She has saved his barber's razors for this day of judgment, and now his sharp "friends" will seek vengeance upon society's hypocrites. Sweeney becomes a murderous barber, and to help dispose of the corpses, Mrs. Lovett suggests they be ground into her savory meat pies. The cycle of violence accelerates; the pies are a huge success, but the stink from the oven becomes highly suspicious. The wicked get punished, the innocent are chastened, and, ultimately, no one escapes from society's compassionless brutality.

Sweeney is a man on a mission; he does not change. Surly and mean-spirited, he exists only to dispatch the lustful judge and his toady, Beadle Bamford, in order to free his daughter. He agrees with Mrs. Lovett's proposals and propositions only to put him one step closer to his goals; her romantic entreaties don't interest him. Chakurian doesn't possess a naturally beautiful voice, but the intense masculine power of his baritone is undeniable and incandescent. You can't take your ears off him. The role of Sweeney is the perfect vehicle for Chakurian, and he chows down on it like a warm slice of Mrs. Lovett's pastry, inhabiting the character so thoroughly, he's actually frightening.

If Sweeney has a heart, it's in the debauched, English vaudeville-inspired Mrs. Lovett, one of the greatest musical characters ever created. Capitalism personified, she's not going to let anything -- or anyone -- go to waste. Low comedy and terrible tragedy rolled neatly into one complex sweet/sour confection, she has waited a long time for her dreams to come true, so good taste and social justice be damned. She beats the judge to death with a broom and then sympathetically listens to her apprentice Toby's lullaby, realizing he knows too much and must meet the same fate. The incomparable Dahl is radiantly electric as both clown and Duse. No one does it better.

The entire cast is definitive, as is director Phillip Duggins's minimal production, which moves this classic with a relentless, chilling drive. Among the exceptionally rendered performances are Kristina Sullivan and Braden Hunt as Sweeney's daughter and the boy she loves, Beth Hempen as the Beggar Woman, young Ben Estus as apprentice Toby, John Gremillion as the self-flagellating judge and Evan Tessier as the sweetly singing, sweetly sinning Beadle. Sweeney's tonsorial parlor, with its trapdoor barber chair, is the top floor of a wondrous spinning cube of a set by David Higginbotham, with Mrs. Lovett's pie shop occupying the ground floor. Pieces of stairs wheel in and out, joining others to make a bridge, or break apart to separate lovers or missed opportunities at murder. Under maestro Paula Smith's expert musical direction, Sondheim's intricate, propulsive numbers take flight.

Due to the black chill of irony that encapsulates it, Sweeney Todd is probably more admired than loved. Nevertheless, in Masquerade Theatre's perfectly thrilling rendition, this classic tale is one for the ages.

 
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