Why do we like Sweeney Todd? An entertainment based on a bloody urban legend seems unlikely for musical theatre. Where is the melodic romp of the Hook on the Car Door? Why no operetta about the mystery meat in the cafeteria? Oh, wait. Here it is.
It only seems unlikely until we remember that operas have always traded in this sort of melodrama, and opera is the key here. Composer Stephen Sondheim has filled Sweeney with music to heighten the tension of an already creepy story -- about a barber bent on revenge, and the woman who helps him by baking his victims into her pies -- and it’s mostly non-stop. We aren’t given many opportunities to disassociate ourselves from the world he and playwright Hugh Wheeler have created. Sondheim wants to scare us. And we want to be scared. Our minds know it’s artifice, but our bodies can’t really tell the difference, so we can enjoy the physical excitement.
The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre immediately gets us in the mood with its production at the Lexington Opera House, which opened Saturday night and continues through Oct. 12. Even as patrons greet one another in the theater as they arrive, the shadows of dark X’s loom on a crimson curtain behind them. And when that curtain rises, the music unabashedly quotes the Dies irae, fog literally rolls off the stage, and we’re off. The chorus consists of Charles Addams characters — all washes of black and grey — staring at us with hollow eyes and introducing the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And when he arrives, rising from a coffin, his red hair contrasting with the slick black of the chorus, he seems less menacing and more human than anyone else on stage. This would be an interesting choice, as Sweeney's anger is justified, even if his actions are not. But it doesn’t really play out that way.
The choices are operatic ones. The singing is impeccable, as is the orchestral playing, directed by John Nardolillo. I’ve never heard a stronger Sweeney than Thomas Gunther, who packs some powerful feeling into the song Johanna, and indeed all the musicians are in top form.
But suspense leeches out of the production at too many turns. Director Richard Gammon’s choice to set the action in the present day does nothing for the story and weakens our response to it. We want the Ripper’s London by gaslight, not the urban graffiti and electric tawdriness of today. The violence in the show is stylized, but perhaps not enough — with no graphic depiction of blood onstage, we rely on Tanya Harper’s lighting design to cue the horror. But then the method of dispatching the bodies is played so casually that it diffuses any shock. The shaving contest holds no uncertainty, as it should, so we feel little triumph. This is the safest thriller to come our way in a while.
And the moments of zaniness are unnecessary: the book and score contain humor enough — and it’s the darkest of laughter, borne of tension, not camp. In this production, the actors don’t connect enough; they talk and sing to the audience rather than to each other. This lifts us from the story, when the lyrics require real contact (“Don’t I know you?” “Look at you!”). This is no small matter: when a character makes a tragic error because he doesn’t recognize someone, we don’t want to feel he deserves it. And when we get to the climactic final scenes of hysteria, many line readings are simply matter-of-fact.
Andrew Miller’s rendition of Toby’s Not While I’m Around is easily the highlight of the evening, not only because his exquisite singing moves from floating high notes to sturdy tenor to the catch of a heartbreaking falsetto, but because he sings it to Mrs. Lovett, not to us. This is good acting and good singing. Likewise, Rachel Snyder’s Mrs. Lovett works well with other characters, and she can move during a song when she’s allowed to do so. Brock Terry, whose Beadle Bamford is supposed to overstay his welcome, is so engaging in his obsequiousness, so subtly smooth in his vocals, that we never want him to stop. Gammon brings in influences from Rihanna to Ringu, and all these are good signs, for UK Opera Theatre has the opera part down. As a theatre piece, this Sweeney Todd has room to grow.