It gives me great pleasure to close out the Atlanta Opera’s 2017-18 season with a musical like Stephen Sondheim’s, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I hate to see the season end but it couldn’t end with a better feature. Referred to commonly as Sweeney Todd, plan on being welcomed by a barrage of surly faces and countless victims to tell a tale of woe.
Based on the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls, the story takes us to a dark place in London where a young Benjamin Barker (Michael Mayes) will have his life ruined. But this musical is not what you think. Many people put too much emphasis on the “Demon” in Demon Barber, but it’s more in alignment with his evil nature. Here’s another morsel you may not have known… He wasn’t always evil. He used to be a young man with a pretty wife named Lucy (Leah Partridge) and a daughter named Johanna (Vanessa Becerra). Unfortunately, there was an evil judge named Turpin (Tom Fox) who coveted his wife Lucy so he banished Barker to Australia. After that, he invites Lucy to a masquerade party where he and his Beadle Bamford (Timothy Culver) got her drunk and raped her there in the open (So when Barker returns he conceals his true identity and goes by Sweeney Todd). Now that you know the backstory you can see why he’s hellbent on revenge.
Sweeney Todd features favorites from the Broadway musical canon, including “The Worst Pies in London,” “Johanna,” “Pretty Women,” and “A Little Priest.” The very first song you’ll hear is “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The ballad sets the dark tone for what to expect: “And what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved… By Sweeney.”
Mayes’ portrayal of the demon barber seemed effortless. With a look somewhere between Edward Scissorhands and Beetle Juice, I had to remind myself at times that he was indeed human. There wasn’t a man alive that could compete with the skillful hand of Sweeney Todd. A traveling barber by the name of Adolfo Pirelli (Christopher Bozeka) once tried but he quickly learned that his usual bravado would be no match for the skill of Sweeney’s hands.
Todd gives his victims the closest shave they’ll ever have. With some help from meat pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Maria Zifchak), Todd is able to plot his revenge on Judge Turpin while making money in the meantime. An impressive feat for a shop with the worst meat pies in London.
An innocent sailor named Anthony (Joseph Lattanzi) was too friendly for his own good. Thinking he had made a friend of Todd, he consults with him on a myriad of personal matters until one day he speaks of his love for a young woman. That woman is somebody Todd remembers from long ago… But you’ll have to see the performance to see the twists and turns that take place.
Outside of the performers, what stood out most to me was the set design. Designer Eugene Lee is the one behind the greatness that I saw in each scene. The residence of Judge Turpin would get wheeled away and in an instant, we’re back to Fleet Street and Mrs. Lovett’s shop. Even the scenes that were set “inside” the shop were done nicely. While not actually inside, the stage layout matched the shape of the building and consisted of two chairs, a few pictures, and a logbook. But the best component of all is the one used by Lovett and Todd to dispose of the bodies. Something I’ve never seen before at the opera!
I give Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street a 9 out of 10. A proper title for the production would be a musical thriller. Musical because that’s definitely what it is (not a traditional opera) and thriller because of the dark story and what’s waiting for you when you see it. With a total run of 2 hours and 45 minutes (with a 25-minute intermission) you are definitely getting your money’s worth and should be proud to end the season with such a sendoff. While I didn’t see too many children, if your child can handle seeing sharp objects or blood then they should be fine. Even the evil deeds are tastefully done!
Photos: Jeff Roffman