Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweeney Todd at Mill City Summer Opera

Mill City Summer Opera is currently performing Sweeney Todd (through July 24). If there is a lovelier place in the Twin Cities to see opera (or musical theater) than the Mill City Ruins, I have not yet found it.

Don't get too excited--as usual, tickets sold out almost immediately. Thank goodness for rush tickets.*

Mill City Summer Opera has been in operation for five years, and this is their first musical. We've had a bit of resurgence in local Sweeney Todds in recent years--it was part of last year's Theater Latte Da season starring Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen. (This acclaimed production was to return this season, but for some reason, it fell through.)

Finally, his arm is complete. Catherine Cook and
Robert Orth. Photo by Dan Norman.
If this show is new to you, or if you missed the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a 1979 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. There's a two-page synopsis in the program, but here's the condensed version from
One of the darkest musicals ever written, Sweeney Todd: A Musical Thriller is the unsettling tale of a Victorian-era barber who returns home to London after fifteen years of exile to take revenge on the corrupt judge who ruined his life. When revenge eludes him, Sweeney swears vengeance on the entire human race, murdering as many people as he can, while his business associate Mrs. Lovett bakes the bodies into meat pies and sells them to the unsuspecting public.
Fun, am I right? The musical actually fits the setting beautifully, with a marvelously versatile set (by Narelle Sissons) that features a birdcage and oversized scissors. Judge Turpin's oversized chair did remind me of Edith Ann, but worked well for a snuggling Anthony and Joanna.

The cast of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Dan Norman.
As with the other Mill City Summer Opera productions I've seen, the orchestra (led by Brian DeMaris) was outstanding. Robert Orth was a sepulchral Sweeney, and had an uncanny physical resemblance to Len Cariou (who originated the role).** Mrs. Lovett was portrayed by Catherine Cook, who nailed both the comic and the more poignant elements of the character. I haven't heard Mrs. Lovett sung as operatically as this before, but it worked very well. 

The talented ensemble cast was fun to watch and consists of powerfully strong singers. In particular, the ensemble numbers such as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and "God, That's Good" filled the Ruins space beautifully.

That said, musical theater is a different animal than opera, and Sweeney Todd, in particular, has a lot of information that is conveyed in dialogue and in song. The dialogue got a bit lost at times in the large space. Also, though the cast and the ensemble was wonderful, I was disappointed to see only one actor of color among the cast of over 30, and in a very minor role--especially given the rich talent in our racially diverse musical theater community.

So why did they choose to take on Sweeney Todd? According to the Director's Note by David Lefkowich: "It was time to push the boundaries of opera and present thrilling music as well as a fantastic story." Hurrah for boundary pushing! I'd love to see them take on some of the marvelous operettas, especially since Skylark Opera has cancelled their Summer Festival (boo hoo). 

Just imagine: Sitting in the ruins on a gorgeous summer night and listening to an amazingly talented cast like this singing "Make Your Garden Grow" from Candide or "Ain't It Awful, The Heat" from Street Scene, or Barbe-Bleu by Offenbach, or anything at all by Strauss. 

Mill City Summer Opera provides one of the most unique and special experiences in local theater. Fabulous music in a gorgeous setting makes for a not-to-be-missed experience for theatergoers.

*Rush ticket policy: Show up before 7:30 PM, get in the rush ticket line and make all your dreams come true! $35 per ticket. First come, first serve basis. Rush tickets are available on the following show dates: July 17, 19, 21, 22, 24.

**Andrew Wilkowske is a cover for Sweeney Todd. Having seen him mostly be charming and comic in shows such as Minnesota Opera's The Magic Flute, I would LOVE to see what he does with the role.

***Belated trigger warning. There is flagellation. I repeat, there is flagellation.