Paramount Theatre in Aurora Serves Up A Breathtaking Sweeney Todd
What is considered by many to be Sondheim’s greatest work Sweeney Todd had its premiere in 1979, starring Len Cariou as the demon barber of Fleet Street Todd and Angela Lansbury (at 65 years of age) as the meat pie maven Mrs. Lovett. For Lansbury this was her second comeback, winning her a second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Sweeney Todd came at quite a cost, both financially and emotional. Thousands were lavished on the original production with the set designer and director Harold Prince purchasing an old factory, gutting the theatre and quite literally transforming it into the seedy world of industrial London in the 1840s. It also caused Sondheim his second major heart attack because of the stresses place on his back. Sweeney Todd, though highly controversial due to its cannibalistic theme, was a huge success and a turning point in musical theatre form, bridging opera and musical theatre into a cohesive whole.
Sweeney Todd was a fictional character penned for what the Victorians called Penny Dreadfuls; horror stories that were published cheaply for the middle and lower classes usually containing gruesome and macabre themes. Sweeney Todd is the ultimate revenge story where the horribly wronged Todd is sent off to an island prison for 16 years on trumped up charges because the “Honorable” Judge Turpin wants his wife. While away Turpin rapes his wife who takes poison and is thought dead and Turpin adopts their daughter Joanna. As she grows into a beautiful woman his desires do as well and he wants to marry her. Todd, newly released from prison is rescued at sea by Anthony Hope and they land in London. Sweeney Todd sets his plan into motion for revenge against Judge Turpin.
He goes back to the location of his old shop and home about Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Shop and out she comes, thrilled to have a customer. She recognizes him as she tells the story of his wife, Lucy and daughter Joanna’s fate. She brings him his most prized possessions; razors made out of chased silver. They next set out to get some money for Todd at a sideshow featuring the “famous” barber and snake oil salesman Parelli, where Todd challenges him to a match; if he wins he gets 5 pounds and if Parelli wins he will give him his cherished razors. Parelli loses but remembers the distinctive razors and later tries to extort money from Todd, whose real name is Benjamin Barker. In a moment of anger Todd slits his throat and puts him in a trunk. Meanwhile Toby, Parelli’s urchin boy is being entertained and fed downstairs by Mrs. Lovett.
Meanwhile Todd’s friend, Anthony Hope, has seen Joanna, Todd’s son, in a window and fallen instantly in love with her when he is accosted by a miserable beggar woman who warns him about Judge Turpin (she seems to know much about him).
Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford return and catch Anthony conversing with her, threatening to kill him if he ever sets foot near her again. Beadle Bamford suggests to Turpin that he get a shave from this miraculous barber named Sweeney Todd and the judge sets off to his shop. Upset Anthony runs to Todd and tells him he has seen Joanna. Just as Todd is about to exact his revenge on the judge Anthony comes running in to tell him that he has met Joanna. Infuriated, the judge storms out swearing never to return and Sweeney Todd explodes in a rage, threatening to kill everyone.
Mrs. Lovett discovers that Todd has killed Pirelli and as they are trying to figure out how to get rid of the body, a bright idea pops into her head; she will make him into a meat pie. Thus the plot is hatched as Todd dispatches clients to the meat grinder of Mrs. Lovett and London goes mad over her delicious pies.
In the role of Sweeny Todd Paul Jordan Jansen brings the charisma, menace and booming baritone needed to deliver this extremely demanding and difficult role. He is the best Todd I have seen since George Hearn, who took over the role for Len Cariou. Jansen is mesmerizing and captures the pathos of Todd, especially in the final climactic moments when he discovers what horror he has done; revenge always comes with a price and his is a steep one.
As Mrs. Lovett Bri Sudia is brilliant, bringing the humor, bawdiness and sadness inherent in this character. She and Jansen have an undeniable spark and together the set the stage aflame (one of their best moments together is the Act 1 curtain classic “A Little Priest” as they remark on the savory and unsavory tastes of different people). This is a star-making turn for Bri and a Mrs. Lovett that I will never forget.
As the evil Judge Turpin Chicago veteran Larry Adams is sheer perfection. Slimy and elegant at the same time he embodies the corruption and lasciviousness of the Victorian justice system to a tee. This is among his finest work that encompasses a career of outstanding work.
As Lucy, the beggar woman, Emily Rahm is heartbreaking. Cecilia Jole and Patrick Rooney are well paired as Joanna and Anthony, beautifully managing Sondheim’s tricky patter song “Ah, Miss” with voices that soar. Not only do they possess physical chemistry with one another but vocal as well.
Matt Deitchman is exactly what Adolfo Pirelli calls for; humorous, slimy and threatening. Craig W. Underwood is prefect casting for the Beadle and Anthony Norman’s Tobias spot on.
The ensemble was extremely fine as the Greek chorus and established the creepy tone and seediness of 1840s London beautifully. They are given some of the most difficult music and harmonies in the show which they pulled off to perfection.
Jim Corti’s direction and choreography were superb, capturing the flavor of the original Harold Prince production but bringing a freshness of his own to it. This is a masterful director presenting some of his finest work. His vision is strong and meticulously realized (his staging of “More Hot Pies” made my skin crawl with the crowd slowly circling the table like rats in sexual ecstasy will be forever etched in my psyche).
Music Director Tom Vendafreddo drew a tremendous sound from his 19 piece orchestra and tricked me into believing there were at least 40; very impressive work indeed.
The Scenic Design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec is nothing short of stupendous; huge in scope, providing the hellish world of the musical in all its seediness and filth. Nick Bailey’s Lighting Design makes up the other half of Kmiec’s design, working together like a well-oiled machine, and creating breathtaking tableaux’s throughout.
Theresa Ham’s costumes are first rate and tie in beautifully with Kmiec and Bailey’s designs and Corti’s pungent vision of Sweeney Todd.
Folks, Paramount Theatre in Aurora is the closest thing to New York’s Broadway theatre scene we have and far less expensive. This Sweeney Todd will go down as one for the books and is among the finest production of this Sondheim masterpiece as I have had the good fortune to experience; it is not to be missed.