Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
I remember the first experience I had with the Sondheim musical. Sixteen years old, sleepover, and completely obsessed with anything that had Johnny Depp. I loved the dark undulating melodies, and took to the unhinged and ultimately doomed Sweeny Todd. So naturally when I heard my husband was singing the titular role, I just about melted into a pool of fandom and happiness. Little did I know though, the movie has nothing on seeing this show live.
Wolf Trap Opera is a warm, familial company that puts on professional level productions featuring casts of up and coming young singers. The summer programs hosts Young Artists, typically singers earlier in their journey, and Filene Artists, performers that are at the turning point between “Young Artist life” and professionals. The summers are rigorous, working six days a week at times to put on incredible, and unforgettable productions. At the helm is the charismatic Vice President of WTO, Lee Anne Myslewski.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the story of Benjamin Barker, a man sent to Australia for his crime of “foolishness.” His wife, Lucy, was desired by the “honorable Judge Turpin and his Beadle”. She was ultimately was taken, assaulted and in the aftermath, poisons herself. The show opens with Barkers return to London as Sweeney Todd, rescued at sea by young sailor, Anthony. The story continues on to tell the tale of the demon Barber, and his path for revenge. The evening itself was such a unique experience. Not only was there a heightened sense of excitement to be back in seats, but also there was a massive response from the audience to the stage as well. Each performer had a way of bringing you into the stage, creating laughter out of serious moments, have you gripping your seat, singing along, or at times holding back a sadness for the desolate situation the show ends with. The cast had a special way of feeding off of each other, and it was clear that even though they only had three weeks to put it together, they made every moment count. Even though the show was done with social distance, a razor, seven chairs and a table, you felt immersed in the dark operetta, with their stage presence bringing Sondheims work to life.
Thomas Glass, my sweet minnesotan husband, brought this complicated character to life. He showed the audience the many layers of Todd, bringing the audience to feel the pain of the character and see him fall down the rabbit hole on his path to revenge. He sang the role with a madness and grace, and had ease throughout the entire show. Glass was a commanding presence with a warm and big sound that kept you at the edge of your seat as made obvious by his chilling and committed performance of Sweeney’s “Epiphany”.
Megan Grey brought hearty laughter to the audience as the eccentric Nellie Lovett, making a perfect counterpart to the darkness of Glass. The two played the duo perfectly, coming to an all time high in their natural delivery of “A little Priest”. Grey delivered a rapid fire of clear diction in all of her frenzied lines, resonating clear over the Orchestra. She portrayed Lovetts morally ambiguous profile in her interactions with her cast mates, and stood out with her full voice contrasted with her more comedic moments.
Nicholas Newton filled the stage with his rich voice, shining as the malevolent and questionably pious Judge Turpin. He made the audience squirm during his song, “Johanna” where Newton characterizes Turpin punishing himself for his salacious thoughts by flagellating his back and singing, “Mea culpa!”, increasing it to “Mea maxima culpa!” and then climaxing at “Mea maxima maxima culpa!”. It’s not always included in a production of Sweeney Todd, and having it adds a twisted dimension to the Judge that Newton acted out flawlessly. In “Pretty Women” Newton and Glass had a balance to their combined voices, making the hairs stand up on ones neck for the beauty of their voices and tension of the barbers desire for retribution.
Alexandra Nowakowski gave a superb performance as the trapped, innocent Johanna. Her voice fluttered through her lines transitioning from the breathless youth and hopes of the character to the nervousness that consumes her light throughout the show. In “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” She demonstrates just that- her lovely voice climbing up and down, with the longing Johanna has to be free. Nowakowski has a light voice that very skillfully maneuvered through the lower notes the part demands, and was a bright presence in ensemble moments.
Jonathan Bryan was a bolt of energy every time he entered the stage. It’s not often that an Anthony is the tallest singer on stage, but Bryan’s youthful spirit exuded from his every spoken and sung word. His beautiful, lyric baritone contrasted with Newtown’s deeper bass-baritone provided for a striking contrast in how they viewed the ingenue Johanna. He showed technical prowess moving through his middle voice to allow his higher register to ring freely when he calls for his love.
Shannon Jennings gave a standout turn as the Beggar Woman. Jennings nimbly walked the knife’s edge between comedic and dramatic acting with aplom, culminating in a devastating look she gives Todd when he realizes what he’s done in the final scene. Jennings’ alteration between character voice and lyric soprano took you on a volatile ride, that was a crazed as Lucy Barkers mind. When she finds herself in the upper apartment on Fleet Street, your heart would break as she reverts to Johannas mother- only adding to the agony of knowing that Sweeney had just performed the greatest injustice against himself.
Chris Bozeka was a much needed comic relief to the dark subject matter of the plot. He stole all of the scenes he was in, serving us a masterclass is corpse acting along the way. His gorgeous tenor and comedic chops served as a luxury casting choice, making this reviewer want to hear much, much more from Bozeka. As the first part of the old saying goes, there are no small parts, and Bozeka‘s Pirelli certainly is not a small part in spite of the relatively limited time he spends on stage.
Conor McDonald was handed a difficult task in making Toby, the iconic “simple” lad who performs one of Sondheim’s most famous songs, into his own. McDonald was an exuberant energy on stage- making us clap along with his advertising songs, and holding us captive with his last monologue. McDonald showed us a great display of Toby’s youth, and how desperate the character was for acceptance. His need was most apparent in the singing of “Nothing’s gonna harm you” where it climaxed with a small scream at the top- a reminder of the innocence of a child trying to protect their “mum”. Eerily akin to the ending of Wozzeck, his last monologue was chilling, and we all felt the agony and incoherence of Toby as he spins out uncontrollably.
Wayd Odle was perfection as the greasy Beadle Banford. He displayed duplicity at a moments notice- from the charming and smarmy right hand man of Judge Turpin- to vicious and dangerous prepped to strike without a second thought. He proved to be a delightfully villainous Beadle, that was easy to hate, as any proper henchman should be. Odle possesses a brilliant tenor that rings with ease and adds a strong falsetto to boot at the end of the quartet in act 1. I would be remiss to not mention the absolute completeness the chorus brought to the show. They were the set, showing multiple scenes of chaos, whether it was the loose patients of Bedlam, or the ravenous customers of Mrs. Lovetts Meat Pies. The National Symphony was superb, and skillfully led by Roberto Kalb, who kept the singers lined up beautifully with the orchestra, while navigating through the undulating notes and erratic rhythms of the score.
I wish I could say that you should go see the stunning production, but unfortunately we only got two nights of its splendor. However, if you see any of these amazing artists performing at a venue near you, immediately grab a ticket because you’ll be in for a treat!