`Sweeney Todd' a cut above

Musical: The Sondheim work is given an impressive production that features eight soloists, the Annapolis Chorale and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra.


Arundel Live

May 06, 2004|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

J. Ernest Green added a large element of courage to his prodigious programming skills when he took on the formidable challenge of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in a concert that featured eight soloists, the Annapolis Chorale and the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra.

Often the province of opera companies, Sondheim's demanding work telling the story of Fleet Street's vengeful demon barber - whose victims ended up in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies - is not everyone's idea of entertaining musical theater.

Having seen this show starring Angela Lansbury at the Kennedy Center about 20 years ago and finding it perplexing, I arrived at the chorale's version with misgivings.

The number of empty seats in the house, which has usually been near capacity this season, suggested that others shared a similar antipathy for this cutthroat musical. Those who held no such prejudices or set them aside were richly rewarded by a brilliant performance of a 20th-century masterwork that is operatic on many levels.

Under Green's direction, the work's dark theme was distilled into a tale of revenge that consumed Todd's tortured spirit until the object of his revenge was vanquished. All of this was accomplished in operatic tradition, converting me into a fan.

In a post-performance conversation, Green asked, "How much worse is Sweeney Todd than Verdi's Rigoletto or Trovatore in terms of controversial subject matter?" (Their themes deal with a father's responsibility for the death of his beloved daughter and with one brother killing another.)

Green's Sweeney Todd was operatic because of the cast. Stephen Markuson was a magnificent Sweeney Todd, whose rich baritone brought warmth to his characterization, seducing the audience by turning the disturbing ode to his barber tools, "My Friends," into a tender love song.

His superb acting enhanced his characterization, as did his rapport with Susan Fleming's Mrs. Lovett. Markuson's "Pretty Women" duet with fellow baritone Scott Root, who played Judge Turpin, was a rare blend of vocal richness.

Root's portrayal of the loathsome judge never degenerated into a caricature of this evil man who falsely imprisoned Todd, raped his wife and later lusted after Todd's daughter, Joanna, whom he adopted.

Fleming was a winning Mrs. Lovett, conveying the many layers of a lonely woman who is wistful, optimistic, scheming, practical and amoral. Fleming's gorgeous voice - with its creamy texture, nuance and color - moves from a comic "A Little Priest" to a melting "By the Sea" and "Not While I'm Around."

In the brief but important role of Pirelli, Andre Bierman adopted an amusing Italian accent that shifted into an Irish one and had a con man's humor with an extravagant persona to provide comic moments along with ringing high notes.

Baritone Ryan De Ryke was in top form as young sailor Anthony Hope, offering a gorgeous "Johanna" to Krista Adams-Santilli's Johanna, who made a strong debut.

Katie Hale was arresting as the Beggar Woman, who, we eventually learn, is Todd's wife gone mad. And John Artz impressed as Tobias, singing a beautiful "Not While I'm Around" and displaying impressive acting skills.

A quintet of chorale singers served as a kind of Greek chorus helping to explain the action.

My only complaint centers on the too-brief time allotted to the chorus.

Sweeney Todd caps a remarkable season, leaving us to wonder what treats are in store for next season, which will be Green's 20th with the chorale.

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