Review: ‘Sweeney Todd’ at the San Francisco Opera (*****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Brian Mulligan as Sweeney Todd at the SF Opera. Photo Credit: SF Opera.
Brian Mulligan as Sweeney Todd at the SF Opera. Photo Credit: SF Opera.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Let’s cut to the chase about this remarkable production. Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett offers one of the most brilliant performances I have ever seen on any stage. Hearing and seeing this phenomenal piece of work qualifies as one of the great theatrical experiences in a lifetime of theatregoing. More on that later.

If Blythe’s creation is truly transcendent, it is not created in a vacuum. The entire production is full of wonders, from the marvelous design of Tanya McCallin to the carefully considered direction of Lee Blakeley, to the 43 piece orchestra conducted with bracing muscularity and precision by Patrick Summers. (James Lowe will wield the baton on 9/26 and 9/29.)

Musically, it is wholly satisfying. Sondheim’s genius is given full sail. Careful listening will reveal subtleties of interval and rhythm, motif and orchestration, dynamics and detail barely addressed, let alone polished, by most companies. Sondheim’s lyrical gifts are so remarkable, that they sometimes overshadow his dazzling musical expertise. That is not the case here. However, the lyrics are not short changed either. The diction, from chorus to principals, is crisp and clear, and the added help of supertitles is icing on the cake. Nothing is lost or short changed.

Director Blakely has taken great care with the staging, never settling for the easy or the obvious. A fine example is the opening chorus, in which the story of Sweeney Todd is being told to a child held on a man’s knee (“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd….”) whose mother rushes up to pull him away. Later in the same sequence, the staging emphasizes the different emotional takes on the story between the male and female chorus members, which foreshadows the very different kinds of madness shared by Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Todd. This kind of subtlety is on display throughout the entire opera.

As Sweeney, Baritone Brian Mulligan lives up to his stellar reputation. His voice rolls out effortlessly, and his characterization of the confused and rage-addled Todd is haunting from start. His brokenness is heart breaking. Heidi Stober and Elliot Madore, as the young lovers Johanna and Anthony, perform their solos and duets with charming lyricism and panache. As Tobias, Matthew Grills offers an impressive and delicate pianissimo in “Nothing’s Going To Harm You” that elicited enthusiastic bravos.

Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett in SF Opera's production of
Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett in SF Opera’s production of “Sweeney Todd.” Photo Credit: SF Opera.

And now to Ms. Blythe. If Stephanie Blythe’s performance were seen on Broaday, it  would surely garner a Tony nomination, at the very least. Recognized as one of the leading opera singers of her generation, mezzo-soprano Blythe sings Sondheim’s complex score with exquisite grace and precision, revealing nuances previously unsuspected. Her acting, too, is of the highest quality. Her Mrs. Lovett is a complex, sensuous, thrilling, profoundly human comedic creation, never a caricature. Her performance of the great comic music-hall inspired aria, “By The Sea,” is nearly perfect. Check that: it is perfect. It is surprising to hear this novelty number sung with operatic force, but Blythe makes us believe in it because the operatic rendition in her hands is not a mere trick of performance, but a perfect realization of the oversized emotions that are overtaking her character. The result is nothing less than transcendent.

“Sweeney Todd” has two more performances at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday, 9/26/15, and Tuesday, 9/29/15. For further information click here.

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“Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A musical Thriller” music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaption by Christopher Bond. Co-Produced by SF Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet. Conductor: Patrick Summers/James Lowe (on 9/26 & 9/29). Director: Lee Blakeley. Production Designer: Tanya McCallin. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Sound Designer: Tod Nixon. Choreographer: Lorena Randi. Dance Master: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. Assistant Conductor: Tson Deaton. Costume Supervisor: Christopher Verdosci. Wig and Makeup: Jeanna Parham.

Cast:

Sweeney Todd: Brian Mulligan. Anthony Hope: Elliot Madore. Beggar Woman: Elizabeth Futral. Mrs. Lovett: Stephanie Blythe. Johanna: Heidi Stober. Bird Seller: James Asher. Tobias Ragg: Matthew Grills. Adolfo Pirelli: David Curry. Beadle Bamford: AJ Glueckert. Judge Turpin: Wayne Tigges. Jonas Fogg: James Asher. Trio: Alan Cochran, Christopher Jackson, and Chester Pidduck. Quintet: Kathleen Bayler, Laurel Porter, Chester Pidduck, Torlef Borsting, and William O’Neill. Ensemble: Kathleen Bayler, Michael Belle, Torlef Borsting, Alan Cochran, Mary Finch, Christopher Jackson, Claire Kelm, Bojan Knežević, Sally Mouzon, Erin Neff, William O’Neill, Philip Pickens, William Pickersgill, Chester Pidduck, Laurel Porter, Michael Rogers, Carole Shaffer, Jere Torkelsen, and Richard Walker. 

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