Watching Paramount Theatre’s altogether breathtaking production of “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” it was impossible not to think: Too bad Lyric Opera of Chicago has already lined up its musicals for this season and next, because this edition of the show — the closest Stephen Sondheim has come to writing a full-fledged opera — could transfer from its beautiful Aurora home to the stylistically similar Civic Opera’s downtown stage without a single alteration.
The Paramount production is a grand-scale stunner, with magisterial voices from both soloists and chorus, a gargantuan set that aptly suggests the fiery hell of Victorian London life, and an orchestra with the power and luster of a full-fledged symphony. And of course there is the Sondheim score, with music that shifts from the most ravishing, aria-like melodies, to the most frenzied patter songs full of blistering, faster-than-the-speed-of-light lyrics. (And really, who but Sondheim could pen a line like “…being careful with your coriander, that’s what makes the gravy grander!”?)
SWEENEY TODD – THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET’
When: Through March 19
Where: Paramount Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Tickets: $44 – $59
Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
On top of all this, there is the no-holds-barred, and aptly all-consuming vision (well, yes, this musical is all about how human beings devour each other, both literally and metaphorically) of director-choreographer Jim Corti, who fully dives into the pitch-black, crazily propulsive world of this “musical thriller” whose book by Hugh Wheeler was inspired by the serialized Victorian popular fiction known as “penny dreadfuls,” and by a Christopher Bond play. Corti and his cast also never miss the opportunity to make the most of the show’s surprising bursts of gallows humor.
To be sure, this show (which debuted on Broadway in 1979) is a bold and risky choice for the Paramount. But this production of ‘Sweeney Todd” is so brilliant and unrelenting it is bound to win converts. And the message that drives it feels uncannily timely, as summarized in these lyrics: “The history of the world, my sweet/Oh, Mr. Todd, ooh, Mr. Todd/What does it tell?/Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat.”
Set in the same industrialized, morally corrupt London whose darker side also was revealed by Charles Dickens, “Sweeney Todd” recounts a tale of lost innocence, betrayal, the monstrous perversion of justice and a compulsive need for revenge. The title character, born Benjamin Barker (played by the full-voiced bass-baritone Paul-Jordan Jansen, a big man with a bald head, and a face he keeps in a perpetual state of controlled rage as he single-mindedly pursues his mission), has just returned from 15 years of exile and imprisonment in Australia. He committed no crime, but was condemned on trumped-up charges by the evil Judge Turpin who also destroyed his naive and beautiful wife, Lucy, the mother of his baby daughter, Johanna.
Hellbent on revenge, Todd bids goodbye to the story’s most humane character — the young sailor who rescued him at sea, Anthony Hope (Patrick Rooney, whose soaring voice possesses a near heavenly beauty) — and heads to the very place on Fleet Street where he once had a thriving barbershop on an upper floor. The main floor is where he encounters Mrs. Lovett (Bri Sudia, the irrepressible star of “Wonderful Town” and “Shining Lives”), the widow hellbent on remarrying, who boasts of selling the most wretched meat pies in London. And not only does she give Todd the beautiful set of barber’s tools she found years earlier, but she becomes his enthusiastic, opportunistic enabler, both in business and revenge.
Sudia, who easily dominates any stage with her fabulous, wide-ranging mezzo voice, wonderfully expressive face, uncanny comic timing, exquisite diction, is a marvel, and custom-made for this role. Any producer who doesn’t nab her for a leading role on Broadway is missing the chance to name a star.
Cecilia Iole brings a powerhouse soprano to the role of Johanna, the girl in the gilded cage whom Anthony falls madly in love with, and tries to rescue from the same fate that destroyed her mother. And in the staggeringly fast-and-furious duet, “Kiss Me,” she and Rooney engage in a dazzling virtuosic display of first love.
Emily Rohm (just back from New York, where she reprised her riveting turn in “Ride the Cyclone”), makes a haunting Beggar Woman, with Larry Adams in fine voice as the smug Judge Turpin, Craig W. Underwood as the oily Beadle, Matt Deitchman as the wily, blackmailing barber Adolfo Pirelli and Anthony Norman as Tobias Ragg, the open-hearted street urchin whose love for Mrs. Lovett is poorly repaid.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s gargantuan set, with its towering maze of stairways and an oven door made from the accordion-style security gates used on ancient elevators, is a piece of hellish genius, with smoke-infused, blood-red lighting by Nick Belley and Jessie Klug, and Victorian finery (and “trashery”) by way of Theresa Ham’s costumes. And as always, Tom Vendafreddo and his musicians bring the full brilliance of the score to surging life.
The powers that be at Lyric Opera should pay a visit to the demon barber. He is certain to give them a very close shave.