Dallas — What is an opera? These days, this is a distinction without a difference. But while these barely perceived borderlines are vanishing, like marks in the sand blurred by the tides of public perception, it is still a discussion worth having. A case in point is the superb semi-concert production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street mounted this weekend by the combined forces of the Turtle Creek Chorale and Uptown Players, both highly resected gay-oriented performing arts organizations. Dallas City Performance Hall proved to be a fine venue for yet another type of performance.
The bottom line is that this production of Sweeney Todd is excellent—and as good as any of the Broadway touring companies I have seen. It is semi-staged, and once you get accustomed to the parameters of the production, like an absence of props, nothing important seems to be missing in this story of a man who seeks revenge with his barber's razor, and the woman who finds an inventive way to dispose of the bodies and improve business at her meat pie shop.
Michael Robinson’s costumes perfectly capture the time and place of the action—19th century London. Yet, he permits himself some wonderful touches of whimsy, such as the remnants of the Beggar Woman’s dress and the elaborate draping he lavishes on Mrs. Lovett. As a director, Michal Serrecchia keeps his touch minimal, letting his excellent cast carry the drama, within his pre-set limits, as he moves them from one platform to another.
The chorus has a major role in Sweeney Todd, maybe as much as any of the leads. The Turtle Creek Chorale is a case of luxury casting if ever there was. Standing on risers behind the action, they sing from memory with as much expression as any of the actors and incredible precision. Some of them seamlessly take part in the action, costumed as townsfolk.
The two main leads, Brian Mathis as Sweeney Todd and Jenny Thurman as Mrs. Lovett are as good as you could find, no matter how wide you put out a casting call. Mathis has a huge baritone voice that is capable of both stentorian and soft singing. Every note he sings is nuanced to capture the meaning of the words. There were moments at Thursday’s opening performance when he pushed the voice right up to its outermost capabilities, but the temptation to do so in such a highly dramatic part must be irresistible.
Thurman is a whirlwind of fussiness as she belts out Mrs. Lovett’s neverending chatter. Never still for a second, she flutters around the stage in a high state of panic throughout. This captures her quandary perfectly in that she knows who Todd is right from the start but must keep him focused on her plot without finding out the horrible truth too soon. Mathis and Thurman's comedic timing in the Act One closer, "A Little Priest," is especially a delight to watch.
John Campione is a fresh-faced Anthony. His equally fresh lyric tenor voice would grace any of the Mozart roles in any opera house. Kristen Lassiter brings an equally lovely lyric soprano to the role of Johanna. Both voices blend beautifully in their scenes together and they make their mutual attraction evident without going overboard.
Tom DeWester brings a combination of bluster and casual cruelty to the role of Judge Turpin. As Beadle, Jay Gardner displays great comic timing with an unctuous overlay. He also has one of the best voices on the stage. Susan Riley is excellent as the Beggar Woman, although she is too bent over too much of the time, displaying a schizophrenic swing from woeful to wacko in an instant.
Peter DiCesare is hysterical as Pirelli, keeping the character as phony as his ridiculous moustache from his first entrance. He also sings all of the considerable number of very high notes in the part, something that is a challenge to anyone singing the role. The young Jacob Barnes is marvelous as Tobias. He is a little stiff as an actor but his voice, right on the edge of boyhood and manhood, is beautiful to hear and he sings with honesty and expression.
Music director Trey Jacobs keeps this musically complicated score precise, considering his lead singers are behind him on the stage. Sondheim’s signature chatty writing, sung at lickety-split tempi, is a challenge in any circumstance. Jacobs can be forgiven for the one or two places when got ahead of the singers on Thursday. A video monitor is hardly the same as eye contact with your singers. The 10-person orchestra responds nimbly and plays with professionalism.
Sweeney Todd is one of Broadway’s mega hits. The original production opened at the Uris Theatre on March 1, 1979 and ran for 567 performances winning eight of the nine Tony awards for which it was nominated. Since then, there have been numerous Broadway and London revivals as well as a constantly touring production somewhere in the world. But it also captures the attention of the opera world; it was first produced as an opera by the Houston Grand Opera in 1984 and has since taken the operatic stage by respected companies such as the Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera and the Royal Opera in London.
Sondheim’s score is as complex as operas by composers such as Benjamin Britten (such as Peter Grimes, to which it is often compared). It is sung all the way though, like an opera; although many operas—such as Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s The Magic Flute—are not sung through and rely on dialogue. The leading roles require singers with operatic techniques, but so do a number of Broadway shows and operettas going back to Victor Herbert.
So, is Sweeney Todd an opera or a musical? In light of this obtuse discussion, there is one differentiator between a Broadway show and an opera, that while recent, seems to hold true. A Broadway show is amplified and an opera isn’t.
By that definition, Sweeney Todd’s stature can change from production to production, but it puts this current production solidly in the Broadway show camp. In one seat, occupied for the first act, the amplification was a problem with a booming bass that muddied the diction. There was even a feedback problem at one point. However, when heard in another part of the hall for the second act, these problems were mitigated, even though it was still over-amplified for these ears.
The big question is: does this production need to be amplified at all? Broadway actors are always amplified these days, even in small theaters. Thus, when casting from the Broadway side of things, there is scant chance for an acoustic performance as would occur if casting from the opera house.
This is an absolutely superb production, but given the quality of the singers and the chorus, the amplification seems superfluous at best and occasionally got in the way of some great singing. This show is playing in an acoustically friendly venue and cast as an operatic performance. It would have been wonderful to hear it as such.