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Simply wonderful
Sondheim's masterpiece 'Sweeney Todd' gets the performance it deserves in concert
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Saturday, July 21, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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Stephen Sondheim looked radiant when he joined the cast for the curtain call at "Sweeney Todd" on Thursday, almost overwhelmed by the wildly cheering standing ovation that erupted throughout Davies Symphony Hall. Or perhaps he was simply as overcome as the rest of us by the stunning concert performance of a masterpiece.

It wasn't only the definitive vocal and character work of George Hearn as "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and the formidable Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, who turns his victims into meat pies. Nor was it the richly textured contributions of the supporting cast, led by former "Phantom of the Opera" co- stars Lisa Vroman and Davis Gaines.

It was the sense of witnessing a now legendary musical theater landmark stripped of Harold Prince's still vividly memorable staging to reveal a work of, yes, staggering genius. If you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket for tonight's one remaining show, don't pass up the chance.

Presented by the San Francisco Symphony's Summer in the City program, co- sponsored by the city Art Commission, the show reprises the New York Philharmonic's concert staging last year in celebration of Sondheim's 70th birthday -- also featuring LuPone and Hearn and directed by Lonny Price. With its full orchestra and Symphony Chorus, it isn't quite the eerily intimate grand guignol the composer-lyricist had in mind when he wrote the "musical thriller," but it comes closer than Prince's epic-scale production on Eugene Lee's transplanted iron foundry set.

Price's minimalist staging is brilliant, making use of the orchestra as the London through which the characters wend their way. He creates striking effects with the movement of the chorus, Greg Brunton's stark lighting shifts and flashes of red against the rich blacks of Gail Brassard's Victorian costumes.

The simplicity of presentation highlights the central elements: the brilliance of Sondheim's score with its "Dies Irae," Berlioz and Prokofiev refrains blended with horror-film and English parlor-song motifs; the muscular economy of Hugh Wheeler's book, based on Christopher Bond's adaptation of a penny dreadful story that had been kicking around London for 150 years; the lyrics that range from Sondheim's wittiest ("The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest") to some astonishing lapses (that "I feel you . . . I'll steal you" ballad is dying to be rewritten).

The score isn't complete. Part of Sweeney's contest with the barber Pirelli (a stalwart Stanford Olsen) and much of Mrs. Lovett's suspenseful parlor song duet with the Beadle (a golden-voiced John Aler) have been cut. But that loss is richly repaid by the restoration of the evil Judge Turpin's leering, self- abasing "Johanna," sung with chilling intensity by Timothy Nolen. And every note is gorgeously shaped by the soloists, the chorus directed by Vance George and a superb orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher.

Hearn is, if anything, an even stronger, more deeply vengeful and eerily obsessed Sweeney than in the touring version that played the Golden Gate 20 years ago, his voice every bit as commandingly rich. LuPone creates a Mrs. Lovett distinct from but worthy to stand beside Angela Lansbury's monumental original, blithely mendacious and desperately loving, her supple voice unearthing and exploring new riches in the score.

Neil Patrick Harris is brilliant as the haunted, pitiful Tobias Ragg. Victoria Clark is a rivetingly mad Beggar Woman. A boyishly fervent Gaines and starry-eyed but determined Vroman breathe new life into the imperiled young lovers. Stripped to its core, this "Sweeney" is as sharp as a razor.

WILD APPLAUSE SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET: Musical in concert. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Lonny Price. (Through today. At Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Two hours, 30 minutes. Tickets: $15-$75. Call (415) 864-6000 or visit www.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at

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