Encore Michigan

MOT’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ breaks ground on beloved classic

operaReview November 19, 2019 Marin Heinritz

DETROIT, Mich.–If there’s anything more exquisitely gorgeous than murder and revenge in filthy Victorian London, you certainly wouldn’t know it after seeingMichigan Opera Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

To “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” as the Greek chorus of Londoners darkly sing as a forewarning in the opening number, is to witness the remarkable adaptation of a Victorian “penny dreadful”—one that MOT Director Ron Daniels himself stumbled upon some 40 years ago and with Christopher Bond turned it into the play that Stephen Sondheim transformed into the award-winning musical.

His intimate connection and history with the story may have something to do with the success of this production; however, it’s the dramatic interpretation of the complex score and the phenomenal talent of the singers that make it truly special.

Sweeney Todd the opera is indeed a very different beast than Sweeney Todd the musical. Overall the voices are crisp, with clear articulation and miraculous phrasing that makes one hear the music as if for the first time.

As the story goes, mayhem befalls London when the titular character returns from being sent to an Australian prison after a wrongful conviction. Tormented by his obsession to seek revenge on the Judge who lusted after his wife and assumed custody of his daughter after he was exiled, Todd takes up his old razors and sets up a barber shop where he slits throats amid giving shaves, and teams up with Mrs. Lovett, proprietor of the meat-pie shop downstairs, to dispose of the bodies and transform “the worst pies in London” into a bustling business selling tasty, tender treats to unassuming customers who clamor for more.

The relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett is central, and here Stephen Powell is an angry, cruel Sweeney, and Karen Ziemba’s Mrs. Lovett is effectively conniving and hungry for wealth and love. Though their chemistry together is murky, Powell possesses a marvelous, seemingly effortless gravitas that gives his voice profound depth and darkness.

Other characters are utterly remarkable here, such as John Riesen’s Pirelli, at turns bright and funny and downright sinister, with a stunning tenor; Kyle Knapp’s sweet Toby; and Amy Owens’ child-like Johanna matched with Nathaniel Hackmann’s stunning Anthony—their quartet “Kiss Me” with RonRaines as Judge Turpin and Scott Ramsay as Beadle is a gorgeous tearjerker.

It really is all about the music, for the impossibly beautiful score and unbelievable singers in this production, yes; but also thanks to Conductor Rob Fisher and the wonderful, full orchestra.

Eugene Lee’s set design makes for an uncluttered stage, though it includes the terrifyingly funny set piece on wheels that doubles as the pie and barber shops and allows for the dead with recently slit throats to slide out of the barber chair down a hidden slide and disappear from sight. Christopher Akerlind’s lights are especially effective in transitions, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are richly textured with layers of lace, velvet, and leather—appropriately dark and reminiscent of Victorian England.

As is de rigueur in opera, the lyrics are projected onto a screen above thestage while they’re being sung; and even though the lyrics are in English,it’s a treat to fully comprehend the clever, at times off-color, and atother times richly romantic, words that largely create the narrative ofthis show.

This is but one more way MOT’s production of Sweeney Todd adds richness of depth, artistry, and understanding to this beloved show, that, as an opera, is practically made new again.

Week of 12/9/2019

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