Thanks in no small part to an immense over-saturation in pop culture (including a Tim Burton film starring— who else?— Johnny Depp), Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has lost much of its visceral impact over the 30 years since its inception.
Revivals have pushed the material in centrifugal ways, changing the time period (the 2012 London revival updated the action to the 1930s), the aesthetic (from gaudy and gloomy to unencumbered sparsity), the target audience (Broadway aficionados with a copy of the Old Gray Lady under their arms to younger Burton fans with deep-seeded longings for Johnny Depp circa 2003). Like any living organism, Sweeney Todd has had to adapt, and it shows no signs of veering into irrelevancy anytime soon: musical thriller was referenced in the American version of The Office a couple of years ago.
Syracuse Opera has taken the not-inconsiderable challenge of putting on Sondheim’s suggestively-gory number in its modest Carrier Theater. The action unfolds on a slim stretch of black stage with portico platforms on either side and a vast back wall upon which ghastly, hallucinatory backdrops are projected to throw us into the grimy thralls of London circa the 1840s inhabited by spit and vermin and shit.
The performance opens with the chorus of Londoners lumbering on stage like so many souls adrift; we’re told the tale of Sweeney Todd, his skin pale and his eyes odd. Mr. Todd, formerly known as Benjamin Barker, was a dexterous barber—perhaps the best in all of London—but the terrible Judge Turpin had Mr. Todd sent away to an Australian prison on false charges so he—Judge Turpin—could pursue his lust for Mr. Todd’s wife, Lucy. Now Sweeney Todd has returned to London after his long wrongful imprisonment, vowing vengeance on the Judge, though his scorn soon spreads to all of humanity. He opens a barbershop above a meat pie shop and starts slitting throats. The corpses are then baked into meat pies, “the worst pies in London,” though everyone soon comes to love them.
Mr. Todd (Kyle Albertson) is a strange presence on the Syracuse Opera stage, particularly for viewers whose introduction to Sondheim and Sweeney Todd came via Burton’s film; sort of portly and short, with close-cropped hair and an incredibly normal (“normal” as compared to the other colorful characters, what with their cannibalism and such) demeanor. His bass-baritone booms with bombast, but he feels somehow unthreatening, almost… friendly? No, not quite friendly, but certainly not imposing. The role of Todd was, for a long time, disheveled and distraught, a man with madness percolating behind his big bilious eyes. The new thing seems to be making Mr. Todd less outrageous; Benjamin Magnuson in the 2007 national touring company, Michael Ball in the 2012 London revival, and now Albertson in Syracuse Opera’s rendition—they all lack the vile, verismo nuttiness of Len Cariou—the original Todd in ’79—or even Johnny Depp. Is Sweeney Todd becoming less odd?
The stage is small and ascetic, with just three elevated platforms on wheels that function as Todd’s barbershop, as podiums for the townspeople, as the sordid hallways of a sanatorium. Chamber-style has worked for revivals of Sweeney Todd in the past, but here the diminutive space leaves the production feeling tiny but not suffocated, terse but not claustrophobic; there’s not enough grime, not enough suffusion of Grand Guignol morbidity to let the imagination fully unfurl. The production is too clean, not sordid enough—Mr. Todd is clean-cut and well-put together (and purple seems an odd choice of garb for a clinically depressed and sometimes sociopathic Demon Barber). The backdrop projections, while hazy and obscure like images from a fever dream, carry a millstone left by the sparse set. Mr. Todd tells us: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and the vermin of the world inhabit it/ and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit/ and it goes by the name of London.” But London doesn’t seem so bad here. It’s kind of cozy.
Sweeney Todd works best when Albertson shares the stage with Jennifer Roderer, whose turn as the garrulous Mrs. Lovett, the animated, amoral woman who runs the meat pie shop, anchors the production in its melodramatic tragic-com roots. With her pseudo-Cockney cockiness, Roderer stumbles around painfully on stage in her dirty flowing dress like she’s carrying burdensome secrets. Her timing is adroit but not mechanically precise. The stand-out first half closing number “A Little Priest” contrasts Albertson’s stoic restraint with Roderer’s flailing embellishment. Her eyes roll back and she looks up, throwing her arms, at once a blissful girl in love and an insidious harridan. That she manages to articulate so clearly without betraying her Limey accent is doubly impressive considering how poorly most of the other players’ voices carry, even in the small theater.
The looming, lingering gothic organs and strings (conducted by Brian Demasris) fill the space nicely, setting the abstract and playfully unnerving mood with Sondheim’s singular syncopated tunes, but the performers routinely drown in the orchestra swell. When the chorus gathers and swoons as one amalgamated entity, the effect is wonderfully eerie, but many of the performers have a difficult time pervading the evidently thick air. As Johanna, Mr. Todd’s daughter (taken in by Judge Turpin as his ward, and now his bride-to-be), Angela Theis is particularly undone by the unfortunate acoustics. From the back row her soliloquies were all but unintelligible.This being Sweeney Todd, fun is the main prerogative; we don’t need deep meditations on the human condition, and we don’t get deep meditations on the human condition (despite the program bill’s assurance that we will).
As Judge Turpin, Jamie Offenbach is both fun and very clearly having fun. His ridiculous French accent (or, rather, a Fwench accent) sounds like Sylvester Stallone impersonating Vincent Price. His best moment is the brief number with Mr. Todd, humming and whistling in tandem while Todd unsuccessfully prepares to slit his throat. Jonathan Howell, playing the scheming Pirelli and jumping between Italian and Irish accents, aptly steals his one grand scene. “The Contest,” a perennial highlight of Todd productions (as well as the film), works so well because Howell’s pomposity clashes with Albertson’s stoicism. Christopher Frisco, as the oafishly de trop Beedle, similarly benefits from this contrast.
During “My Friends,” when Mrs. Lovett returns the gleaming silver blades to Mr. Todd, the pair sings: “I’m your friend/ and you’re mine!/ Don’t they shine beautiful?/ Silver’s good enough for me, Mr. T.!” Silver may be good enough for you, Mr. Todd, but here you earn bronze.