By Barry Reszel
There’s no need to look past the first line of the show for the bottom line of this review.
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”
Paramount Theatre’s opulent production of Stephen Sondhem‘s grisly masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a flawlessly executed piece of musical theatre on every level of Jeffrey D. Kmiec‘s frighteningly massive four-story set, awash in red light to begin and red blood by the revenge tale’s end.
Eighty-six-year-old Sondheim’s an acknowledged genius among musical theatre savants who cite the complexity of his gorgeously nuanced orchestrations combined with insightful and witty lyrics. (Read some Sondheim adulation from well-known Broadway performers here). He really ought to consider trekking to Aurora, because a team of fellow creative geniuses are producing a rendition that easily rivals the best ever performed.
The work to bring about such accolades begins with Paramount’s Artistic Director and Sweeney Director/Choreographer Jim Corti. His gritty vision of the filth, corruption and vengeance in and around London’s Fleet Street in the late 1700s literally sets the stage. Simultaneously, brilliant Music Director Tom Vendafreddo and Sondheim’s full, original orchestrations, allow the gorgeous 19-piece orchestra to set the tone.
Complementing Kmiec’s impressive unit set, replete with helpful hydraulics, are Theresa Ham‘s stunning costumes; Katie Cordts‘ creative wigs, hair and makeup designs; Patrick Ham‘s special effects; and spot-on, at times haunting lighting design from Nick Belley and Jesse Klug.
Those new to the 1979 Tony-winning Best Musical (among the eight won) have likely passed on other touring productions and regional opportunities to see this show. Don’t pass on this one.
The plot centers around Sweeney, formerly Benjamin Barker, who returns to London following a stint in exile for a crime he didn’t commit. He finds his wife is presumed dead and his daughter Johanna the ward of the evil Judge Turpin, the man who forced Barker’s exile. With the help of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney opens a barber shop into which he lures his victims whose lives are ended via straight edge across their necks and their bodies turned into the best meat pies in London. But Sweeney’s bloodthirst will only be quenched by the death of the man who caused his greatest pains. (A fuller synopsis and production history may be read here.)
Perhaps Corti’s own genius is best demonstrated via his Sweeney Todd casting. Paul-Jordan Jansen is an orgre-esque Todd with a booming voice that crushes every Sondheim melody and lyric he sings while frightening both the Londoners who come for shaves and the assembled onlookers. His “Epiphany” is a masterpiece and “A Little Priest,” sung with Bri Sudia as Mrs. Lovett, is a lovely comedic duet that closes Act 1.
Sudia was meant to play this role and makes the most of her Cockney snark and perfect voice to present a Lovett simultaneously calculating, cold-blooded, loving and sympathetic. Her “Not While I’m Around,” perhaps the most tender moment in the show, is a gorgeous duet shared with sweet Anthony Norman portraying bakery assistant Tobias.
Additional character performances deserving note include Patrick Rooney (Anthony), who intones “Johanna” lovingly; Cecilia Iole as the gorgeous Johanna who shows a lovely voice in “Green Finch and Little Bird;” and Emily Rohm as the haunting beggar woman with a past and an eye patch. Plaudits go out, too, to Larry Adams who magnificently channels the worst of Donald Trump portraying smarmy Judge Turpin. It’s too easy to imagine Turpin’s lustful line to Johanna, “How sweet you look in that white muslin gown,” whispered by 45 to daughter Ivanka.
Lastly, a sickly talented ensemble deftly working through Corti’s intriguing choreography and stage direction puts the final touches on this masterful production. In particular, the opening number in Act 2, “God, That’s Good!” creates a visual memory (won’t reveal the detailed spoiler here) as strong as anything seen on any stage.
The lone caveat is that this is not a show for the squeamish. But make no mistake, Paramount’s Sweeney Todd may well be the musical theatre production of the year. So make haste, and attend the tale.
Paramount Theatre presents “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” through March 19 at 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora. More information and tickets are available here.
Photos by Liz Lauren.