Powerfully Sung and Acted, Opera Theatre Offers Delightful “Sweeney Todd”

Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Ron Gilfry as Sweeney Todd in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production.

Karen Ziemba is a Broadway musical actress- and a wonderful one at that. She shows the way as she leads the cast of Opera Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd,” a show more associated with musical theatre than opera, down a Broadway bound road. Her impish wit gives us a more merry than malevolent Mrs. Lovett and it works beautifully. Although the rest of the cast is mostly associated with opera, they make you feel more like you’re at the Mark Hellinger than the Met.

Rod Gilfry is an imposing Sweeney. His massive frame, maniacal visage and strong, velvety baritone are suited to the role. He also has a lot of fun with the character and brings a relish that’s a perfect foil to Karen Ziemba’s vibrant performance. Timothy Nolen shines as Judge Turpin- in a long, white hairpiece and with a somewhat stoop-shouldered gate- he is the epitome of “dirty old man.” As his sidekick, Beadle Bamford, Scott Ramsay also brings a more whimsical cast to the role.

The infamous shaving and tooth-pulling contest in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of “Sweeney Todd.”

Nathaniel Hackmann brings a strong voice to the role of Anthony. The powerful “Johanna” number justly rings the rafters. As his love interest, Deanna Breiwick is a demure Johanna with a lilting soprano voice. Anthony Webb makes a properly stuffy Pirelli as he appears to be more interested in singing his own praises than showcasing his skills in his famous shaving contest with Sweeney. And Kyle Erdos-Knapp is a sensitive Tobias as well as a skilled singer that makes his “Nothin’s Gonna’ Harm You” number particularly moving.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, bringing the stunning Stephen Sondheim score to magnificent life. Musical director Stephen Lord leads the St. Louis Symphony in a stirring rendition of the music- perhaps getting a bit too loud at times- but making the score sound even more spectacular than we remember. Director Ron Daniels does a fine job despite being hampered by an unusually awkward set. His use of the aisles through the audience in several scenes is great- even a little spooky during the scene when Anthony tries to rescue Johanna from the asylum.

Scott Ramsay as Beadle Bamford and Timothy Nolen as Judge Turpin in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

As mentioned, the rather bizarre set design was the only real problem with this production. The curtain separating upstage from downstage that is utilized throughout the evening is made of a series of thick plastic strips similar to what we’ve seen in meat packing plants. It’s a bit noisy and very intrusive when it’s used- which is a lot. There were no other background identifiers for scenes so, although we’re all familiar with Mrs. Lovett and her pie shop by now, the only indication was the table where she rolled her dough. The same with the barber shop- just a temporary chair and side table- no other identifying backdrops or clues.

Which brings us to the most egregious set design error that led to a most unsatisfying series of scenes- the most crucial to the plot- when Sweeney finally get his new barber chair and dispatches his “customers” to become the infamous meat pies. Two chorus members stood behind the chair after the throats were cut and carried the victims off stage. Without the traditional two story set- barber shop upstairs and pie shop down- we miss the most dramatic impetus of the show as throats are cut, chair is tilted and they slide down a chute to become “oven ready” for some delicious meat pies. On the same stage 15 years ago, the Rep did the show (with Thom Sesma and Pamela Myers), and they featured such a contraption. So it can be done without destroying sight lines.

Karen Ziemba and Ron Gilfry in “Sweeney Todd” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis.

Thank heavens we have Ron Gilfry and the astounding Karen Ziemba- they and the cast literally pull the show from the jaws of this ineffectual set and bring us a stunning production. “Sweeney Todd” is not often done these days. Even the Broadway re-make several years ago went by the title of “Teeny Todd” because of the smaller scale with this often overpowering show. At Opera Theatre, you get the bang for your buck because of the delightful cast, great musical direction and strong stage direction that gives it a more tongue-in-cheek sense of the macabre.

See “Sweeney Todd” in repertory with three other productions at Opera Theatre St. Louis through June 24th. Call them at 314-961-0644 or e-mail them at info@opera-stl.org for tickets or more information.

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