Chicago Theatre Review
Brilliant Bloody Revenge
Sweeney Todd – Paramount Theatre
The show opens with a morbidly melancholy organ fugue, played with precision by Michael Keefe. Suddenly a screaming factory whistle pierces the air. When the blood-smeared act curtain rises, the staggering visual impact of this production strikes the audience like a razor cut to the jugular. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s enormous, atmospheric, all-enveloping scenic design wraps around the entire massive Paramount stage, providing three stories of shadowy nooks and crannies where actors lie in wait.
Two young men appear in spotlights, grimacing at the audience, as they begin delivering their frightening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Then, suddenly, the stage is flooded in stark, blinding light, co-designed by Nick Belley and Jesse Klug, revealing the terrified ensemble lurking everywhere, shrieking out their warning to heed the tale we’re about to behold. With their faces, frozen in terrified screams, Sweeney Todd enters the stage, and now there’s no escape. We’re in for a dark evening of macabre, Grand Guignol horror and brilliant, bloody revenge.
Tom Vendafreddo’s full-sounding nineteen-piece pit orchestra offers up Stephen Sondheim’s glorious score with excellence. Has the musical stage ever heard such a perfectly crafted composition, so eerie one moment, with its organ and strong, dissonant accompaniment, and then soaring with beauty and heartache the next? Sondheim’s employment of angular harmony and counterpoint, an adaptation of the Roman Catholic Requiem hymn, “Day of Wrath,” consists of twenty leitmotifs that recur throughout the score. The composer’s insistent “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which both opens and closes the show and appears variously throughout, are as close to perfection as one can find in musical theatre.
Sondheim called his show a “black opera;” others have identified it as the show that inspired the “grusical,” horror stories with a musical score, such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Carrie.” Whatever you label this musical thriller, playwright Hugh Wheeler adapted his script from Christopher Bond’s play, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which in turn was based upon a possible real-life Victorian serial killer who then made his way into the penny dreadfuls of the time.
Stephen Sondheim’s score and lyrics are considered his finest achievement. The original 1979 Broadway production rightfully swept the Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A somewhat controversial 2006 John Doyle revival, in which the actors also provided the show’s musical accompaniment, also earned two Tony Awards. A couple years later the musical finally found its way to the silver screen. This powerful musical drama has toured throughout North America and been produced the world over; educational, regional and community theatres have also staged their own versions of “Sweeney Todd,” to great acclaim.
For those few theatergoers unfamiliar with this deliciously gruesome, often heartbreaking musical, it’s a story of how revenge can consume an individual, becoming an all-enveloping obsession. The musical is also, according to original director Hal Prince, an allegory about capitalism and “the terrible struggle to escape from the class into which you’re born.” A poor, 19th century English barber named Benjamin Barker finds his way back to London, following his 15 year imprisonment in Australia on a bogus charge. With his wife and young daughter taken by the evil judge who was responsible for this abomination of justice, the barber changes his name to Sweeney Todd and seeks revenge on all of those responsible. With assistance provided by former neighbor and pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney turns his obsession into the extermination of all evil and, coincidentally, providing the necessary ingredients for his lady friend’s meat pies.
This production is, without a doubt, the finest, most polished and stirring of Paramount’s recent history. Jim Corti’s majestic vision for this production and his inspiring, focused direction and choreography is absolutely breathtaking. With the magnificent Tom Vendafreddo working his accustomed magic as musical director, guiding both his actors and musicians to harmonic excellence, he adds so much color to this production. Mr. Corti’s interpretation of Sondheim’s masterpiece is quite simply extraordinary.
Add to this lots of other striking details. Amanda Relaford provides the icing on the cake with her historically accurate properties, from wrought iron bird cages to silvery straight razors. And, with period accuracy and stunning artistry, Theresa Ham and Katie Cordts have created an astoundingly gorgeous wardrobe of costumes and hair pieces. From Mrs. Lovett’s elegant new gown and coiffure, to mark the rebirth of her bakery, to Johanna’s meticulously fitted “light, muslin gown,” every article of apparel is beautiful and period-perfect. Just feast your eyes on the gorgeously detailed costumes for the large ensemble to behold Ms. Ham’s spectacular talent.
Corti’s exceptional cast displays all the talent and passion that Sondheim’s work demands. Paul-Jordan Jansen, in his Paramount debut, is magnificent in the title role, a part he seems born to play. The actor’s subtlety, his tortured face, the explosions of rage and indignation are matched by his beautiful, velvety bass-baritone. Laying the story’s groundwork in the touching, “There Was a Barber and His Wife,” Jansen caresses every emotional lyric of “Epiphany” and “Pretty Women” while joining in the black humor of “A Little Priest.”
Bri Sudia’s Mrs. Lovett is magical and complex. She’s wryly funny one moment and heartbreakingly frank the next. Her relationships, secretly romantic with Sweeney and maternal but skeptical with Toby, are honest and complex. Ms. Sudia brings lightness and sassy humor to the play, but she’s always in complete control. Carefully layering her emotional involvement with constant, new discoveries (“ideas keep popping out of my head”) the actress, whose musical talents are as strong as her acting ability, makes Nellie Lovett a dynamic, continually surprising and lovable leading lady.
Beautiful Emily Rohm, an accomplished, talented actress and skilled vocalist in every role she plays, grounds the Beggar Woman in as much reality as can be found in Sondheim’s fictional world. Her gorgeous voice leads the ensemble in many numbers, and she’s absolutely heartbreaking in the “Final Sequence,” staged high above in Sweeney’s Tonsorial Parlor. Cecilia Iole and Patrick Rooney are equally affecting and poignant as lovers Johanna and Anthony. Mr. Rooney’s performance of “Johanna,” one of musical theatre’s most exquisite ballads, is heartfelt and radiant. Ms. Iole thrills with her sadly tragic and beautifully sung and articulated “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Both actors meet the challenge of the difficult, tongue-twisting comic patter song, “Kiss Me.”
Matt Deitchman’s gloriously sung and acted blackmailer, Adolfo Pirelli, is funny, despicable and spot-on. Mastering two dialects as the tonsorial scoundrel, as well as lending his considerable musical and comic talents to this villainous role, make Mr. Deitchman a standout in this production.
The always impressive Larry Adams and Craig W. Underwood create a fine, dastardly duo as the evil Judge Turpin and the smarmy Beadle Bamford. Both handle the musical demands of their roles with ease and richness, while keeping their characters realistic and menacing.
Anthony Norman makes his Paramount debut as the poor, abused orphan boy, Tobias Ragg. Audiences will be impressed by this young actor’s musical talent and the ease with which he masters this complex role. Whether running around the stage spitting out Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics during “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” serving up hot, steaming pies at the newly-polished pie shop or heartbreakingly pledging his love and devotion to Mrs. Lovett in “Not While I’m Around,” this young man’s Chicago performance is solid and memorable.
Attend this tale of Sweeney Todd and be prepared to shiver. Unquestionably a theatre company that tops itself with every production, this is certainly Paramount’s magnum opus. Jim Corti has assembled a powerful, brilliantly talented cast, including a magnificent ensemble of musical actors, made even better by a talented production team comprised of some of Chicago’s finest musical and technical artists. Mr. Corti, the undisputed king of musical theater, delivers a production of Sondheim’s musical classic that Chicago will be talking about for years to come. For those who enjoy their theatre like their meat pies, skillfully prepared, well-seasoned and bloody rare, this is the perfect production. Audiences are leaving the Paramount Theatre raving, “God, That’s Good!”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 8-March 19 by Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 630-896-6666 or by going to www.ParamountAurora.com.
Additional information about this and other Chicago productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.