More Intense Insanity Needed in HGO's Sweeney Todd

Nathan Gunn as Sweeney Todd
Nathan Gunn as Sweeney Todd
Photo by Lynn Lane

The set-up: Why is Houston Grand Opera's production of Stephen Sondheim's distinctively sour Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) so dull? Where is the righteous fire, the scalding hypocrisy, the intense insanity? What happened to this "musical thriller" that so galvanized Broadway and won every theater award possible? Where did it go?

The execution: The show arrives with sterling credentials. Director Lee Blakeley is an acclaimed interpreter of Sondheim; Tanya McCallin's sets and costumes mirror the Hal Prince original's epic look with Victorian industrial scaffolding, grimy windows, and catwalks (and that shrill factory whistle); on paper the cast should be ideal.

International opera star baritone Nathan Gunn never fails to invest his roles with incandescent stage presence and ardor (Billy Budd, Eugene Onegin, Count Almaviva in Marriage of Figaro, Figaro in Barber of Seville, Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, along with a host of stellar performances in Broadway musicals: Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Lancelot in Camelot, Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat). Sondheim's demon barber should be a natural.

English dramatic soprano Susan Bullock is known for her interpretations of Brünnhilde heard all over the world, so the terrors of vaudevillian villain Mrs. Lovett shouldn't be any drawback.

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The young cast includes former HGO Studio alums: Morgan Pearse (sailor Anthony smitten at first glance with Joanna, Todd's daughter), Megan Samarin (Joanna "with the yellow hair"), Nicholas Phan (Toby, apprentice to Mrs. Lovett, his surrogate mother). And Jake Gardner (evil hypocritical Judge Turpin) has been a stalwart bass-baritone his entire career, limning just about every supporting role in the opera rep. You'd think they could put across this gorgeous and dark musical without any effort at all. However, no one seems to be trying very hard. This Sweeney is like a run-through for lighting cues and sound check, not an actual performance. Let's start a fire, folks!

We might forgive them (barely) for walking through the show, but what's unforgivable is their shoddy diction. This is a venal sin. If HGO hadn't supplied surtitles, in English, no less, Sondheim's brittle lyrics would have been mush. The dialogue passages, scant though they are, aren't translated, and they, too, waft into the cavernous Wortham on muffled clouds. This does great disservice to Sondheim's brittle wordplay, and our flagging interest isn't piqued by our eyes having to be glued to the top of the proscenium. Where's the diction coach?

While HGO's production is hardly definitive, more's the pity, at least Sondheim's symphonic score comes through loud and clear. Conductor James Lowe caresses Jonathan Tunick's ravishing orchestrations and gives the show its rhythmic heart. You could call Sweeney Todd an American opera and not be far from the truth. It is symphonic in scope, rich and resonant, with muscular drive and epic sweep. The interweaving of themes and the matching of music to character give this score an "operatic" treatment that is unparalleled. It is breathtakingly beautiful and complex, using for example, a Dies Irae motif for Sweeney's skewed sense of justice, while the contrapuntal musical lines in "Joanna" intricately intermesh like the finest of tapestries. This score's almost too good for Broadway.

Dark and grim, Sweeney is cold and steely, like the demon barber's beloved razors. It also has a creepy "panto" quality in the low-rent Mrs. Lovett, a true classic character of the musical stage. She's the show's heart, even if it overflows with amorality. She loves Sweeney, always has from afar, and now that he's returned to London, she cleverly sets her cap to get him. The best debauched capitalist there is, Mrs. Levett is not going to let anything - or anyone - go to waste. She has pies to bake. Clown and tragic figure rolled into one, Lovett just wants a quiet seaside house with Mr. T. Ms. Bullock channels peerless Angela Lansbury (the original Mrs. Lovett) a bit more than necessary, but I liked her tidy sense of entitlement.

Sweeney is a man on a mission and does not change as the story swirls around him. Surly and mean-spirited, he exists only to dispatch the lustful judge and his toady of a Beadle (a sweetly-singing Kevin Ray), in order to free his daughter. He agrees with Mrs. Lovett's pastry scheme only to put him one step closer to his goal. He goes mad with vengeance.

Mr. Gunn never quite caught Sweeney's brooding insanity, the man on a fateful quest. He's never very frightening. He and Ms. Bullock only captured the right spirit in the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque "A Little Priest," where the contents of the pies might contain prelate, fop, lawyer, and royal marine. They pranced like troopers, except we'd never appreciate Sondheim's ultra-clever, tongue-twisting lyrics without those surtitles. The chorus is appropriately grand and stirring; they make very good asylum inmates and a cornucopia of London residents. Only Mr. Pearse, as love-smacked Anthony, has the requisite fire of youth and stirring voice to give his ballads spontaneity and lyricism.

The verdict: But overall, this production of Sondheim's masterwork is a disappointment, and you might not realize how good a show it is, what a classic of its kind. It's a musical for the ages. HGO goes through the motions, but never proves it.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues April 29; May 2, 8, 9. with the Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at or call 713-228-6737. $20-$330.

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