Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Stick to Priest

June 16, 2012

Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
Sometimes, a new performance of a familiar piece of musical theater can be great for showing you something that you didn’t recognize before. But then again, there may be some things in this life that one really doesn’t need to know. Opera Theater Saint Louis is in the midst of their 37th season, and among the English-language Mozart and Carmen performances is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. The new production of Christopher Bond’s adaptation was directed by Ron Daniels and has a cast with Broadway star Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd. The trend in staging this show in recent years has tended toward the lean, and very, very mean. Whether it’s Tim Burton’s movie or John Doyle’s bare bones mental ward, the show has gone creepy as can be. But not so for Saint Louis, where Daniels has cleaned up the streets of Victorian London a bit and gone for the big laughs. There’s nothing much changed with the text, of course, but while Daniels delivers something outside of the current practice, I’ll admit I’m not sure that the world needs a Saturday matinee type of chuckle-fest when it comes to the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Of course, it takes two to, well…, you know. And the audience I saw the show with on a self-same Saturday afternoon sounded ready for a good old fashioned musical and they weren’t about to have it any other way. I’d never noticed so many laugh lines in the opening number before, but there they were. In fact it wasn’t until Rod Gilfry got to the word “shit” (in reference to London and the world generally) that it seemed to occur to some viewers that this wasn’t The King and I. Even Sweeney’s eventual murders got big guffaws each and every time in Act II as the design team elected to go with forcefully spewing fake blood from the necks of his victims covering a good portion of the stage. The production is sparse, dominated by a back wall with an oven in it that is sometimes covered with a plastic blood-stained curtain. Even Sweeney’s infamous barber’s chair doesn’t quite function as it typically does with each body being pulled from the chair's farthest back reclined position by two costumed extras after each murder as the body is whisked offstage.

Karen Ziemba Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2012
But there are strengths here, particularly in the cast. At the top of the bill is Gilfry who can sound as warm and beautiful as he has at any time in his career. He glowers with the best of them, but the overall tone of the production sometimes works against him. (I’ll admit that it’s also somewhat strange that this particularly tall and devilishly handsome Sweeney is still so difficult for the denizens of his old neighborhood to recognize.) Ziemba, on the other hand, is lock-step in line with the show with a bubbly, attractive Mrs. Lovett who comes off as more whacky and bemused than predatory. She delivers a fantastic version of A Little Priest, however, and vocally was always up to Sondheim’s tricky, precision-demanding lyrics.

There were both veterans and new faces in the supporting roles. I was particularly thrilled about a young man named Nathaniel Hackmann who was a magnetic, sweet voiced Anthony Hope. He may be among the best I’ve seen anywhere in the role and came off sincerely earnest and in love. More of him, please. Deanna Breiwick was a clear, bright-voiced Johanna who stayed clear of some of the simpering and camp aspects of that thorny role. And Kyle Erdős Knapp, as the doomed young Tobias Ragg, gave an unnerving wiry performance of perhaps the darkest of all the show’s roles. Of the three, Erdős Knapp is a current Gerdine Young Artist. It speaks well of the company that they’ve amassed three such compelling performances in this staging.

The members of the Saint Louis Symphony that play in the festival orchestra continue to be one of the company’s biggest assets. Here they were conducted by OTSL music director Stephen Lord who could let things go a bit sluggish here and there, but the stage-pit coordination in this challenging score were always on target. And he did the most important thing in letting Sondheim’s most brilliant songs speak for themselves plainly and directly. You could do worse than this Sweeney Todd and if you don’t mind all the yucks in the middle of your Victorian bloodbath, it may be the show for you. It's onstage now through the 24th.



A small note -- only Mr. Erdos-Knapp is a Gerdine Young Artist. Ms. Breiwick and Mr. Hackmann are not. The other GYA in a principal role in this production is Anthony Webb as Pirelli.
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