Opera review: The horror and humor in Austin Opera’s ‘Sweeney Todd’

The production captures the deeply human emotions at the musical’s center and its dark humor without losing the story’s grit


It seems Austin Opera has barbers on the brain this season.

Following November’s “The Barber of Seville,” the current offering “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” at the Long Center through Feb. 5, sheds an entirely different light on the profession. Both shows are melodramas, but while Seville’s Figaro is simply “a barber of quality,” villainous Sweeney Todd sends men “to their maker impeccably shaved.”

Whatever the reason behind this hairstylist-saturated programming quirk, audiences aren’t complaining. General Director and CEO Annie Burridge announced before Saturday night’s performance that “Sweeney Todd” is both Austin Opera’s first Sondheim musical, and their single highest ticket seller to date.

A chilling tale of murder and cannibalism, “Sweeney Todd” is set against the inhumanity of industrial revolution London. Under Doug Scholz-Carlson’s direction, this production captures the deeply human emotions at the musical’s center and its dark humor without losing the story’s grit.

The show starts with the screech of a factory whistle, which later punctuates each of the demon barber’s murders. A chorus of townspeople introduces Todd’s backstory with high energy and foreboding, sweeping across the stage around and in front of the orchestra pit. From below, conductor Timothy Myers and the orchestra expertly drive the show forward.

From his first appearance onstage, Sweeney Todd (bass Kevin Burdette) is intimidating. Committed to destroying the dishonest Judge Turpin (baritone Ron Raines) who exiled him to Australia and drove his beautiful wife to take arsenic, he quickly gathers information and forms a plan of vengeance. He finds an ally in down-and-out baker Mrs. Lovett (Grammy award-winning soprano Mela Dailey). This Mrs. Lovett is lovable and practical. With her opening aria “The Worst Pies in London,” she charms both Todd and the audience.

Todd’s daughter Johanna (soprano Raven McMillon) is also a victim of Judge Turpin’s injustice. In her heartfelt, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” she sings of her unhappy confinement in his house, where she’s lived as Turpin’s ward since her father’s exile. When earnest young sailor Anthony (baritone Mark Diamond) overhears her singing, he falls in love, and they plan to marry.

Unfortunately, Turpin is attracted to Johanna too. Disgusted with his lust for the girl he raised as if she was his daughter, Turpin commits self-flagellation. But treating marriage as an ethical loophole for his perverse desires, he decides to propose to her, patriarchally assuming she’ll go along with the union. While corrupt Turpin gets his moment of moral questioning, Todd never waivers from his path of vengeance.

And yet, the chorus never cowers from Sweeney. They champion him as someone who doesn’t have power reordering the world by taking it (and life) away from those that misuse theirs. Reveling in the tale’s sordidness, the chorus sings seven reprises of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” all with frisson-inducing gusto and harmonies.

Suspicion of Todd comes only from Beggar Woman (mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams). Asking for alms daily in the street, she is the most powerless character onstage, but still a threat to the murder scheme as her half-crazed cries of “mischief” sound the alarm.

It isn’t long before conman and rival barber Pirelli (tenor Angel Romero) becomes Todd’s first victim. Before he goes, he gives an exuberant performance, contrasting Todd’s calculating sneer as the two set their skills head-to-head in a shaving contest. At the moment of Pirelli’s death, and all the deaths in the show, the lights (designed by James Sale) flash red over the victim. There aren’t any grotesque spurts of blood, but the result is clear.

When the question arises as to what to do with the bodies, its Mrs. Lovett’s idea to supply her shop by using the dead men as pie filling. Seizing on the plan, she and Todd gleefully pun on how meat from men in different jobs might taste in the Act One finale, “A Little Priest.” Their cannibalism is notably democratic — they’ll “serve anyone, and to anyone at all.”

Soon, Mrs. Lovett has pulled Todd and young boy Tobias Ragg (tenor Christian Sanders) into the patchwork family of her dreams and built a comfortable life. She’s in her element as a homemaker, but Todd’s obsession with vengeance and grief over the loss of his wife mean he’s not fully onboard with her plans for a peaceful life together. Portrayed as an innocent making his way in a world filled with corrupt adults, Tobias is this production’s most tragic character, eventually driven mad by the revelation of his adoptive mother’s twisted culinary practices.

In an excellent (and alliterative) casting choice, tenor Bille Bruley plays Beadle Bamford. Bamford is a bully as a lackey for Turpin, but in a delightful scene, he sits down to the harmonium with a flourish, and sings out “row dow diddle dow dee.” His musical enthusiasm contributes a surprising lightness to an otherwise suspenseful scene, adding dramatic irony and contributing to the show’s constant pull between humor and horror.

Originally designed for Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), the costumes by Jonathan Knipscher serve to link characters, emphasizing, for example, the bond between Mrs. Lovett and Tobias. Knipscher’s costumes add color and pattern to the grimy world evoked by R. Keith Brumley’s scene design (also originally for DMMO) through a palette of plaids. Composed of multiple two-story pieces, the set unfolds, shifting from an exterior street scene to homes, shops, and an eerie furnace-like bakehouse.

“Sweeney Todd” is a show about man literally devouring man, but bounced along by Sondheim’s clever lyrics, Austin Opera’s production finds the fun in this dark tale.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” continues 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2 and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets and info at austinopera.org

Courtney Thomas
Courtney Thomas
Courtney Thomas is an Austin-based writer interested in the intersection of art and politics. In 2022, she graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a BA in Theatre and Dance and a BA in Humanities.

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