Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: 'Sweeney Todd'

Virginia Opera
Adam Turner conducting
Oct. 3, Richmond CenterStage

Whether you think of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as a quasi-opera or an operetta or a Broadway musical, it’s proving to be a terrific vehicle to launch the 40th anniversary season of Virginia Opera. The show packs a dramatic punch, garnished with titillation, and its cast of singing actors, from the stars to the choristers, perform like true believers. It earned the cheering ovation that erupted after the first of two Richmond presentations.

Stephen Powell plays the title character, a London barber intent on avenging his unjust transportation to the penal colony of Australia by a corrupt judge who lusted after Sweeney’s wife and now plans to possess the Todds’ daughter, Johanna, by marriage. Powell very effectively portrays Sweeney as a stolid, preoccupied figure, with only a certain dark look in the eye hinting at his pent-up rage. His dark but usually mellow voice sends the same signals, often to chilling effect.

Phyllis Pancella, as Mrs. Lovett, purveyor of the worst meat pies in London, who becomes Sweeney’s landlady and would be his lover, is the comic lead of the show. She further sets herself apart by being the only one in a cast full of London low-life characters to speak and sing in a Cockney accent. Pancella is gratifyingly manic without going over the top, and vocally top-flight.

Amanda Opuszynski, as Johanna, and Andre Chiang, as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who rescues Sweeney at sea, once they make landfall in London, falls in love with Johanna, are an attractive and suitably fresh-voiced couple. Chiang gives “I Feel You, Johanna,” the show’s big romantic number, the full measure of warmth and yearning.

Jake Gardner, as the villainous Judge Turpin, and Scott Ramsey, as the Beadle (bailiff), sing and play their characters with appropriately gruff, assertive tone. Gardner is convincingly conflicted, and smoother vocally, in his interlude of tortured introspection.

Among the supporting cast, Diana Dimarzio as the Beggar Woman and David Blalock as Tobias stand out both vocally and in characterization. Members of the Virginia Opera Chorus are in very good form, both as narrators and denizens of Fleet Street.

The show’s director, Ron Daniels, co-authored the play that Sondheim adapted for this musical, and Daniels’ immersion and authority show in virtually every move the cast makes. Kyle Lang’s choreography likewise rings with authenticity.

The production, originally staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, is dark and spare, but a nonetheless effective platform for a show driven by mood and character.

Adam Turner, in his first outing as Virginia Opera’s principal conductor and artistic advisor (he had been the company’s resident conductor for three seasons), draws vivid, colorful playing, nicely balanced with voices (amplified for this show), from a pit band composed of musicians from the Virginia Symphony.

Virginia Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets, and at 8 p.m. Oct. 11 and 2 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Center for the Arts of George Mason University in Fairfax. Richmond tickets: $15.25-$103.95; Fairfax tickets: $44-$98. Details: (866) 673-6782 (Richmond); (888) 945-2468 (Fairfax);