- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

The latest operatic “crossover” phenomenon seems to be Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

A phenomenal success when it first burst onto the Broadway scene, “Sweeney” is awfully sharp and sophisticated for a mere “musical,” but its intimate, claustrophobic setting would seem to disbar it from the opera stage. Recently, however, a few daring companies have chosen to set the work in smaller venues, replacing the standard Broadway belters with opera singers. It works.

The Wolf Trap Opera Company, continuing to take chances under the leadership of its inventive director, Kim Pensinger Witman, is staging “Sweeney Todd” at the Barns at Wolf Trap in what most likely is the first operatic production of the work in this area. As a sold-out house on opening night will readily attest, the concept functions remarkably well, although a few kinks will have to be worked out. Still, it’s a delight to hear this inventive music sung by an enthusiastic, youthful cast whose voices don’t require the assistance of a multimillion-dollar sound studio.

For the uninitiated, “Sweeney Todd” is the unpleasant tale of a Victorian-era London barber whose brutal treatment by a corrupt legal system ignites a ticking time bomb in his head, leading to a revenge tragedy of epic proportions. In league with the amoral Mrs. Lovett, he dispatches dozens of hapless customers with his razor. Their remains become the secret ingredient in Mrs. Lovett’s increasingly popular meat pies.

Grisly stuff, indeed. But it’s all done with an acidic sense of humor to an acerbic yet romantic score, all spiced with Mr. Sondheim’s patented intellectual lyrics, witty and dark as ever.

Director Joe Banno — who has been emerging across town at Arlington’s Washington Shakespeare Company as the go-to guy for makeovers of classics that will challenge audiences but not kill ticket sales — transports “Sweeney” from the underside of Victorian England to a vaguely more modern setting with a tired, industrial green interior that reminds you of old elementary schools or decaying hospitals in the 1950s. Designed by Erhard Rom, it generally fits the bill. Combined with the subtly displayed meat hooks and Act II’s hanging bodies, the set gives fans of the classic cult film “Motel Hell” a delicious frisson of recognition.

The company orchestra, under the baton of James Lowe, is superb, although it will need to calibrate volume to accompany (rather than overshadow) the singers as well as the chorus, whose patter lyrics — not always well enunciated — tend to get swallowed up in the noise.

Wolf Trap’s young singers perform with particular brilliance, as we have come to expect. As Sweeney, bass Matt Boehler cuts a significant swath, dominating the show with darkly brooding, insane eyes, a brittle manner and a booming, authoritative voice. Alexander Tall, as aptly named romantic lead Anthony Hope, has a powerful, rich baritone that projects high morality and conviction — qualities that should lead him to larger venues in the very near future.

As Mrs. Lovett, mezzo Audrey Babcock is a strutting, comic sensation, although her thick cockney accent, coupled with the orchestra’s occasionally intrusive playing, takes her out of the action periodically.

In smaller yet significant roles, bass Jason Hardy (Judge Turpin), soprano Maureen McKay (Johanna), and tenors Jason Ferrante (The Beadle) and Javier Abreu (Tobias) sparkle. The knife-clean high notes and perfect falsettos of the tenors are entertaining and smashingly well done.

***

WHO: The Wolf Trap Opera Company

WHAT: “Sweeney Todd”

WHERE:The Barns at Wolf Trap

WHEN: Tomorrow and Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $56.

INFORMATION: Call 800/955-5566 or visit the Web site, www.wolftrap.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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