ST. PETERSBURG — Sweeney Todd is Stephen Sondheim at his greatest, and St. Petersburg Opera rose to the occasion Friday night at the Palladium Theater. To hear opera singers in the brilliant musical was a rare treat.
But don't let the operatic pedigrees fool you. At the center of Sondheim's grisly masterpiece is a nuanced relationship to rival that of Macbeth or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Buffy Baggott and Peter Kendall Clark, this cast has a Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd who not only sang gorgeously (especially Clark) but also displayed the dramatic range and comic timing (especially Baggott) to turn the blackness of the tale into something transcendent. Everything came together in the pair's madcap tour de force, A Little Priest, in which unspeakable material (Mrs. Lovett's pies made from entrails of Todd's murder victims) became the stuff of exhilarating song and dance.
Dan Kempson's glamorous baritone and the coloratura of Margot Rood combined delightfully in Kiss Me, the love duet by Anthony and Johanna. Heather Roberts was a powerful, unsettling presence as the mad Beggar Woman, the Cassandra of Victorian London in City on Fire. As Judge Turpin, Adelmo Guidarelli was suitably perverse and self-flagellating in his low-pitched aria lusting after Johanna. Isai Jess Munoz and Jay Gardner had amusing turns as Pirelli and Beadle Bamford, respectively. Matt Branic's Tobias soared sweetly in Not While I'm Around, but was less effective in his numbers drumming up business for Pirelli and Mrs. Lovett.
Artistic director Mark Sforzini conducted the 23-piece orchestra, which did full justice to Jonathan Tunick's masterful orchestrations that bring so much depth to songs such as Pretty Women, the amazing duet by Todd and the Judge. The 17-voice ensemble had lots to do in director Dean Anthony's lively staging and made a striking impression in The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, lined up in period costumes (by Glenn Avery Breed), faces glowing spookily in the lighting of Keith Arsenault. Supertitles enhanced appreciation of Sondheim's witty lyrics, while spoken dialogue (not on the supertitles) was sometimes hard to make out.
All the blood-letting in Todd's tonsorial parlor was handled deftly, with his victims dispatched to the scream of a factory whistle and red lighting. The demon barber's chair, equipped with trap door and chute, got a rise from the audience whenever a corpse was whisked away. T.J. Ecenia's scenic design utilized two levels and several staircases to accommodate the varied action, though entrances and exits through the middle of the large set were awkward.
Offstage, St. Petersburg Opera and the Palladium could sharpen up their act. The production was supposed to run 2 hours, 50 minutes, including intermission, but with a big crowd that took a while to settle in, Friday's performance got off to a late start, intermission stretched beyond a half-hour, and at the end the whole evening clocked in at 3 hours, 20 minutes. Thank heavens the show was so riveting.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.