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Monday, July 11, 2016

Sweeney Agonistes

WHY WOULD AN OPERA AND THEATER DIRECTOR – a director with a long, long list of credits, thus implying a successful career – saddle a masterful work like “Sweeney Todd” with a concept so misguided and a succession of staging choices so at odds with the piece that the work is rendered painfully unwatchable? Christopher Alden’s version, which opened last Saturday at the Glimmerglass Festival, succeeds in what I’d think would be the difficult task of doing to “Sweeney” what Sweeney ends up doing to his customers: carving the life out of it.

Harry Greenleaf with ensemble members.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
I doubt that it’s out of any overt contempt for the material, but there’s a sneaky subversive process that afflicts the creative, especially in theater. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency of those with relatively lower skill levels to believe that they function with far more accomplishment than they do. Couple such a lack of perspective with the anti-intellectualism that characterizes too much of American culture and you easily can end up with “high-concept” approaches to theatrical works that serve to betray a creative team’s lack of creative intelligence.

It’s long been an epidemic with productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which too often are “improved” by directors ignorant of the origins of the works and unwilling to trust the integrity of the well-established words and music. The most obvious betrayal of this phenomenon shows in rewrites of Gilbert’s lyrics that display no understanding of the basic principles of rhyming, let alone the wit to top what’s already there.

Stephen Sondheim’s work sits on a similarly high intellectual plane. “Sweeney Todd,” his 1979 musical, features a witty book by Hugh Wheeler and originally was staged by Harold Prince in Broadway’s cavernous Uris (now Gershwin) Theater, where it got a little lost among the girders and platforms. Nevertheless, the set was used to breathtaking effect in “Kiss Me,” a tense, breathless quartet in which the lovers Johanna and Anthony risk discovery by the evil Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, who draw ever closer, on a series of catwalks, to the frightened pair. But as Alden staged it, the couples barely moved; there was no sense of location, and there certainly wasn’t a hint of suspense.

That’s because the set, by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland, consisted of walls. At the top of the show, when we’re in what appears to be a low-rent eatery in the likes of Brighton or Blackpool, two perpendicular walls come to an upstage apex. Eventually they break into smaller components, moved at seeming random from scene to scene. The apparent conceit is that the story is being told by the patrons who, according to the variety of their inconsistent accents, don’t actually hail from England.

The first evidence of trouble came in the sluggish opening. While I can appreciate an opera-house approach to this piece, the words really do need to be put across, which means sacrificing full and beautiful note values in order to tell the story. But the singers weren’t helped by the slow tempos that too often obtained.

Christopher Bozeka as Adolfo Pirelli
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
As the story unfolded, one bizarre staging choice after another undermined scene after scene.
Sweeney Todd (Greer Grimsley), who has fled an Australian prison, is reunited with his razors by crazy meat-pie baker Mrs. Lovett (Luretta Bybee). “These are my friends,” he sings to them, but he’s not actually able to sing to them because they’re in a box emitting a bright light that’s slowly being passed from chorus member to chorus member, lined up along the stage. Not only does this draw focus away from the song, it also reveals Alden’s ignorance of the song’s meaning: it’s a duet between Sweeney and the razors (“Speak to me, friends; whisper, I’ll listen), into which the lovesick Mrs. Lovett insinuates herself (“I’m your friend too, Mr. Todd”).

But Alden proved to be a master of distraction, which he took to an absurd height during “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” sung by Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) as she is held under lock and key by Judge Turpin (Peter Volpe). As she started this beautiful number, three chorus members donned full head masks with bird faces and stood on upstage chairs while approximating avian twitches. It was too freakish a spectacle to ignore, even as Pogorelc was called upon to perform while circumnavigating a ring of chairs, which looked dangerous.

It got worse. Nicholas Nestorak, as the youthful Toby, sings “Pirelli's Miracle Elixir” to hawk a hair-growing tonic. He’s supposed to be an earnest, frightened urchin, but he was costumed in a bright striped suit and given an old-fashioned microphone to carry, so he ended up looking like a young Jimmy Savile. Pirelli himself enters with a flourish, so said flourish here was amplified beyond all credibility by garbing Christopher Bozeka in blue sequins and a Liberace cape, with movement that upstaged the heart of the scene.

Sweeney Todd identifies the elixir as “piss. Piss with ink” – but he’s not holding a bottle of it. And what purpose was served by the comically oversized scissors Pirelli carried? On and on the distractions went while the poor story struggled to gain some footing.

Judge Turpin has a disturbing showstopper of a number in which he lusts after Johanna even as he flogs himself in shame, but it was staged with no sense of its purpose, missing out on the creepiest musical orgasm since Strauss’s “Sinfonia Domestica.” Was Alden being wilfully perverse? Does he secretly hate musical theater? Does he dislike actors? Was that why he had them singing so often while sitting in chairs?

Luretta Bybee and Greer Grimsley
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Act One climax comes in a sequence that includes the duet “Pretty Women,” sung by Grimsley and Volpe as we think Sweeney is about to get revenge, but it sounded merely flaccid. Grimsley finally got a chance to assert his talent with “Epiphany,” into which no distraction intruded, but Alden got his own revenge with “A Little Priest” by forcing Grimsley and Bybee into a mid-number costume change so that they could appear to be vaudevillians performing “in one.” It added nothing. It distracted from the moment. It was yet another case of what Sondheim has described as “directors showing off. They take it upon themselves to distort in order to draw attention to themselves.”

This must also explain why, when the young sailor Anthony (Harry Greenleaf) is going to rescue Johanna by posing as a wigmaker, that he was camp-costumed in scarf and stole, looking like Quentin Crisp, who, as far as I know, didn’t deal in hair. But it got a cheap laugh.

“Sweeney Todd” is subtitled “A Musical Thriller,” and the propulsive score skillfully creates a throbbing sense of dread when needed. This production removed all traces of anxiety. There was no chute down which a corpse should slide – even though it’s written into the music. There was thus no reason for Toby’s madness by the end of the show. The orchestra is a top-notch group, but conductor John DeMain not only took too-slow tempos but also failed to pick up end-of-scene cues in good time. There was a moment of what I took to be rebellion as the Beadle (Bille Bruley) sang “Ladies in Their Sensitivities” fell into a sensible tempo, but it left the orchestra behind, making him sound bad!

Without the chute, without a blood-spurting razor, the gore was rendered symbolically by having a chorus member, in drag, throw a bucket of theatrical blood against a wall. It seemed ... bloodless. I feared we’d just changed plays and gone into “Red.” And the convention ended up milked, of course, for another cheap laugh.

I could go on and on, but I stopped taking notes and don’t wish to relive any more of this. Although I can’t help but asking: Why was the Beggar Woman (Patricia Schuman) asked to put on a tinfoil hat? Don’t we already realize she’s crazy? Where, in such a props-free set, did that upstage oven come from? And why wasn’t its opening large enough to suit the moment? The performers did their damnedest, but they were thwarted from the start by every misguided aspect of this production.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler
From an adaptation by Christopher Bond.
Directed by Christopher Alden
Conducted by John DeMain
The Glimmerglass Festival, July 9, 2016


The Blog Editors said...

This review is right on. It is difficult to destroy a masterpiece, but this production comes close. The singers were excellent, though.

Carlo said...

This review is right on. It is difficult to destroy a masterpiece, but this production comes close. The singers were excellent, though.