Sweeney Todd is the greatest story about revenge, young love and cannibalism ever told. Inspired by penny dreadfuls from the 19th century, Stephen Sondheim turned the legend of a murderous barber—and popular 1973 stage play—into this darkly comic musical.
Portland Opera's performance, onstage at the Keller, uses the same set from the original 1979 Broadway production. It's dark, bloody and a ton of fun.
The tale begins with the eponymous Todd and Anthony Hope, a young sailor, arriving in London. The jaunty opening duet, "No Place Like London," is interrupted by a filthy beggar woman singing, "Wouldn't you like to push me crumpet?" Instead, Todd (David Pittsinger) announces his plans to open a pie shop on Fleet Street. As Todd's landlord and future business partner, Mrs. Lovett (Susannah Mars), breaks into "The Worst Pies in London" in a thick cockney accent, the bloody tale is underway.
Sets and costume design here create a dingy, grungy London straight out of the first half of the 19th century. This London is the sort of place where an old beggar could alternate between asking for alms and "a little jig-jig." It's the sort of place where you could go to an insane asylum to get hair from the inmates. It's the sort of place where a judge can profess his love for his ward while striking himself with a cat-o'-nine-tails.
Sweeney Todd is perhaps Sondheim's most operatic work. Nearly every line is sung, with most of the male roles filled with bass and baritone voices. It's deep is what I'm saying. The low, rolling boom of Todd's voice is an ideal match for Mrs. Lovett's cockney soprano.
The accents, slang and broken English—"to shave-a the face!"—established Sweeney Todd's reputation as a show full of bad singing. While Tim Burton went out his way to emphasize this in his film adaptation starring Johnny Depp, the music here is exemplary.
This is an earnest, loving revival of the original Broadway production, right down to Adolfo Pirelli's frighteningly flamboyant swings with the straight razor while singing "The Contest."
A barber murdering clients is terrifying. (Hell, just using a straight razor is scary enough.) A man trying to bang the young woman he's taken as his ward is despicable. A pie-maker grinding humans into pie filling and then serving those meat pies to a hungry public is revolting. And yet, Sondheim and the capable Portland Opera make it a fitful, funny romp through London town.