My esteemed colleague Cedric recently suggested that SF Opera's recent staging of a production detailing "the evil scheming of a morally corrupt upper class against the noble instincts and the steady moral compass of the simple peasants" was intended to tell their well-heeled audience "Oh, you want some Verdi? Here's what Verdi thought of you." If he's right, then the choice of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 grand guignol musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street seemed a continuation of that comment, a warning of what San Francisco seems just steps from becoming.
There's no need to fear the likes of her, she's only a half-crazed beggar woman...London's full of them. -- "No Place Like London"
I don't know why I never saw this in Sondheim's work before — I haven't seen Todd performed since 2007, when director John Doyle’s spare production of Todd hit ACT. San Francisco was different then. Maybe I was, too?
Director Lee Blakeley’s production, which closed at the SF Opera last night (sadly, press ticket availability prevented our attendance before then) premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2011 and was staged at Houston Grand Opera last spring. It's a far more traditional telling of the penny dreadful tale of Sweeney Todd, a falsely-imprisoned barber (an appropriately-dark Brian Mulligan) who fights his way back to his family in Victorian-era London, only to find his wife (he believes) dead, and his daughter raised by the judge who sent him away.
Punctuated by the familiar-to-any-San-Franciscan cries of a homeless woman begging for "alms," (Elizabeth Futral, who seemed to struggle with the ragged vocal demands of the role) a manically despondent Todd seeks vengeance against those who stole his life — and, seemingly, against everyone else in London who crosses his path. But how to dump the bodies?
The history of the world, my love...Is those below serving those up above. -- "A Little Priest"
His landlady Mrs. Lovett (an absolutely fantastic Stephanie Blythe) has an industry-disrupting idea: Her meat pie business has been struggling, so why not feed London on its own? And thus, The Best Pies in London are born! Todd slices the throats of his customers, then drops them through the musical's trademark trap door into Lovett's bakehouse, where they're sent through the grinder three times, then fed to patrons waiting in endless, hungry lines.
There are two kinds of men and only two. There's the one staying put in his proper place, and the one with his foot in the other one's face. -- "Epiphany"
I'll chalk up some of the thin spots in last night's performance to it being the end of the current production's seven-performance run. But other issues, like the blaring of the SF Opera Orchestra over some of the vocals Sondheim intended to be most spare (example: Act One's punch-in-the-gut "Epiphany"), are less forgivable. The audience needs to hear these words as they pour out of Todd's black heart, but even Mulligan's best efforts couldn't compete with a squaking brass section. It appears the amplification of the vocals was a persistent issue for this production, and that's really too bad, as many of the lighter lyrics that should have counterbalanced the show's bitterest moments got lost in the scrum.
But even with these bobbles, we were still presented with a passionate, galvanizing, and ultimately gleeful (as strange as it seems to describe a show laden with rape, mass murder, and near-incest like that) staging of the show, one that hit all the right beats without seeming slavishly beholden to Sondheim's original 1979 production. In fact (sorry, Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone!), Blythe might be my new favorite Mrs. Lovett, and Matthew Grills ate the Toby that Neil Patrick Harris brought to the SF Symphony in 2001 for lunch. I am hopeful that both of them tackle those roles again, because I feel like they'd just gotten started.
Those crunching noises pervading the air...It's man devouring man, my dear. And then who are we to deny it in here? -- "A Little Priest"
And then there's the story, that glorious, horrible story that I could not help but look at through San Francisco's current struggles with homelessness, income disparity, and "disruptive" class that doesn't give a good goddamn about what happens to anyone else as long as they get theirs. How the hairs on my arms raised as the ostensible male romantic lead Anthony asked a street vendor why the nightingales he sells "batter his wings so wildly against the bars," only to STILL BUY ONE even after he was told "we blind 'em sir and, not knowing night from day, they sing and sing without stopping, pretty creatures." How I mentally scrolled through post after post on every food blog ever as I watched the ensemble cry "God, That's Good" as they fetishized Lovett's pies. And how I was reminded that there are no new problems under the sun as I watched even the kindest, sweetest character become corrupted by the heartlessness of the city in which he lives.
Are the horrors of the world as played out so graphically in Todd restricted to San Francisco? No, of course not. But looking around those seated "up above" with me (tickets in the area in which I sat ran at over $200), then stepping past "half-crazed beggar woman" after "half-crazed beggar woman" on my two-block walk to my car, I felt that SF Opera had just baked us all a most subversive pie to delight our eyes...if we haven't already been blinded without even knowing it.