There are two kinds of people in the world -- those who love "Sweeney Todd" and those who don't. Those who love Stephen Sondheim's grisly 1979 "musical thriller" tend to think it's the greatest American musical of all time. And, after experiencing Thursday's electrifying performance at Davies Hall, it may be impossible to argue with their logic.
Presented in a semi-staged version by the San Francisco Symphony, and featuring a stellar cast that includes Tony Award-winners George Hearn (in the title role) and Patti LuPone (as Mrs. Lovett), the production makes a compelling case for the work's supremacy.
Thursday's performance, which has its final repeat tonight as part of the symphony's "Summer in the City" series, was a gala event. Sondheim was in attendance, and video cameras were recording the production for future broadcast. A capacity crowd packed Davies to hear it done by exemplary singers and one of the largest orchestras ever to play its score in performance.
Despite numerous awards and accolades, "Sweeney Todd" has been controversial since its first production. No other musical has fused words, music and drama to assail the senses in such an original, and often alarming, way. No other musical has perplexed audiences the way this one has: Is it a revenge tragedy? Black comedy? A Grand Guignol melodrama? Broadway musical or opera?
Based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, the story -- about an ex-con in 19th-century London who seeks revenge on the men who wronged him -- is undeniably macabre. But the genius of Sondheim's adaptation, subtitled "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," is its humanity. Even as Todd commits murder and mayhem, chopping his victims to bits for Mrs. Lovett to bake into meat pies, he's more sympathetic than most "good" characters in conventional musicals.
And, as evidenced by this production, the show simply refuses to age. More than two decades after its debut, the composer's classic songs still combine with Hugh Wheeler's timeless book as one of the most innovative, exhilarating and horrifyingly funny pieces of musical theater in the American repertoire.
Directed by Lonny Price, who also staged last season's acclaimed concert performances (including some of the same cast members) for the New York Philharmonic, this is an elegant, economical "Todd." Although the singers are costumed and the stage is eerily lit, the elaborate Victorian sets of the Broadway productions are nowhere in evidence.
Instead, the action takes place in front of, around, above and behind the orchestra, with the singers making their entrances from both sides of the stage and across a ramp leading to a raised central platform. With orchestra, chorus and more than 20 vocal soloists negotiating the stage, the space often seemed filled to capacity. But Price moved the players around with maximum efficiency, and the show unfolded with striking precision.
This "Todd" is also smartly cast, from the leads down to the smallest roles. LuPone's seductively saucy performance as Mrs. Lovett is a deliciously conceived comic creation, warmer and more human than Angela Lansbury's original portrayal. Lisa Vroman ("Phantom of the Opera") lent her fresh, girlish soprano to the role of Johanna. Tenor Davis Gaines was an ardent Anthony, and Victoria Clark was a frighteningly acerbic Beggar Woman. Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.") made an appealing Tobias, and Timothy Nolen was an aptly creepy Judge Turpin. John Aler's Beadle and Stanford Olsen's Pirelli were well-sung.
But it's George Hearn's brilliant turn as Sweeney Todd that makes this production so memorable. Hearn's commanding stage presence, his large, resonant voice and his ability to convey the character's anguish, rage and madness create an indelible impression. When he first takes up his long-lost razors ("My Friends"), his pasty face fills with foreboding for the deeds he's about to commit. With one look, he sends a collective chill through the audience.
With Rob Fisher conducting, the orchestra's performance was equally spine-tingling, and Sondheim's endlessly inventive songs emerged in a seamless flow. Vance George's Symphony Chorus -- with individual members stepping forward in various solo spots -- made their contributions with fierce energy.
At the conclusion of Thursday's two-hour-35-minute performance, the crowd leapt to its feet to cheer the cast, the orchestra, the chorus and the composer. Can that many Sondheim fans be wrong?