Hearn's `Sweeney Todd' barber is breathtaking

Published Saturday, July 21, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News

At 71, Stephen Sondheim is getting the attention he is due, and the composer is giving back excitement to the classical music establishment.

He has an ambitious repertoire project at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a highly regarded recording of the New York Philharmonic's ``Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.''

It was the San Francisco Symphony's turn Thursday night to handle the national treasure with a version of ``Sweeney Todd'' that took advantage of most of New York's previous production. George Hearn sings the murderous barber; Patti LuPone plays Mrs. Lovett, the maker of human meat pies; Lonny Price directs.

A sold-out house of 2,500 roared its approval when the evening was over -- a good thing, since the production was being recorded for television, video and DVD.

George Hearn's performance as the tragic barber is so right that it takes the breath away. His interpretation -- singing, muttering or screaming out defiance -- displays such exceptional vocal control that saying it compels is almost an understatement.

LuPone doesn't sing so much as bark and croon the comic part, but her Cockney accent is good and her timing is almost perfect. She's a cheesy, sleazy Mrs. Lovett, which works interpretatively. But amplifying her voice -- which is done for all the principals -- was a mistake at Thursday's volume levels. The ear can cringe when LuPone belts out duets with Hearn, and there's work to be done on the patter songs that, even for this crass character, need a little nuance.

Lisa Vroman, who sings Johanna, the barber's daughter, is a favorite in this city, but it's hard to hear the attraction. Her voice has a brilliant timbre, but there isn't much variety to her singing.

That's not the case with Davis Gaines, who plays Johanna's heartthrob, Anthony, with fine phrasing and ardent tone.

Timothy Nolen's singing made for a terrific Judge Turpin.

As the judge's beadle, John Aler appears too nice, but his lyric tenor is precisely what is needed for the high-flying part.

Stanford Olsen, who plays the competing barber, Pirelli, strained for his high notes.

Neil Patrick Harris, however, made an eloquent Tobias Ragg, the orphan who sniffs out the rotten ways of Mrs. Lovett and her barber.

Victoria Clark is a crazy beggar woman.

The necessary clutter that infects concert versions of musicals and operas has been inventively rearranged for this semi-staging at Davies Hall. Stage director Lonny Price's mobile solutions work quite well. The orchestra, about 30 players, is wedged into several places on stage, fitted like a jigsaw puzzle around the singers.

Rob Fisher ably conducts the strings from the center in front of a central walkway and ramp that winds around the stage and permits the soloists and chorus to make their points from several spots. It is worth remarking how well the San Francisco Chorus members march across these narrow ramps to act their parts.

Sondheim gets cranky when critics write that he composes American operas. His standard retort: If it's played in an opera house, it's opera; in the theater, a musical.

But ``Sweeney'' has all the elements of Bernstein's ``West Side Story,'' Menotti's ``Amahl and the Night Visitors'' or even Puccini's ``La Bohème.'' It has catchy tunes with melodic and harmonic sophistication, a superb paring down of story into dramatic ensembles, and smart lyrics. Of course, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for ``West Side Story'' as well as his own works.

``Sweeney Todd'' was acknowledged a masterpiece when it won the Tony Award in 1979. It's still proving that assessment was spot-on.

Contact Lesley Valdes at lvaldes@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5640. Fax (408) 271-3786.

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