Last year Hollis was mesmerizing as the ubervillain Scarpia in “Tosca.” (I wrote that his voice “swelled through the Saroyan like a big, menacing creature of the dark.”)
This time around he has a much more nuanced and conflicted role, that of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in the classic Stephen Sondheim musical about revenge, personal hygiene and cannibalism. A tormented and cunning character, Sweeney is an empty shell of a man seething with righteous indignation. At some pit-of-the-stomach level, an audience member should feel something for him: the pain he’s suffered, the indignities he’s experienced, the love he’s lost.
Yet Sweeney has no qualms about sending a large number of innocent people to their early graves. Traumatized romantic vs. cold-blooded butcher: How do you reconcile those two halves?
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Such is the stuff from which great performances are born.
I had the chance to experience Hollis’ take on the character – just one of many impressive highlights in this ambitious, often successful, sometimes very flawed production – at a Sunday matinee in Modesto’s beautiful Gallo Center for the Arts. Thanks to the partnership between Modesto’s Townsend Opera and Fresno Grand Opera, this is the same production playing Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Saroyan: same cast, set, costumes, production design. The only thing different will be the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra.
There is debate as to whether Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is musical theater or opera. My view: People shouldn’t lose any sleep over the issue. There are a number of musical-theater works in the canon that offer an opera company a beautiful score to play around with, and “Sweeney Todd” is certainly at the top of the list.
Hollis’ booming baritone, for example, adds a rich and lustrous depth to Sweeney. His vocals expand on the character and let us rattle around a little in the depths of his murky soul. His partner in the crime, the indelible Mrs. Lovett (played with finesse by Margaret Gawrysiak), does likewise with her mezzo-soprano presence.
Other principals in this production offer a similar heightened sense of character, from Philip Skinner’s standout Judge Turpin, the nasty man with his eye on Sweeney’s long-lost daughter, to Robert Norman as the young boy Tobias, a beacon of innocence in the gritty, cutthroat 19th century London of the play. (Skinner’s “Johanna: Mea Culpa” and Norman’s soaring “Not While I’m Around” take us emotional places that I don’t think a non-opera-singer could match.)
But there are challenges to an opera-centric approach. One of the biggest is the issue of amplification. This Fresno Grand Opera production does not use any. That’s fine when you’re dealing with singers who can easily project in a huge hall with their vocals and spoken dialogue.
Another big challenge is tone, and this is where the production stumbles most.
But some of the singers in this production just didn’t have that power at the performance I attended. At times I could barely hear the lyrics of David Castillo as Anthony and Camille Jasensky as Johanna, the star-crossed lovers, over the swell of Ryan Murray’s excellent orchestra. I was sitting just a few rows back in the Gallo Center. I wonder what it will be like from the balcony of the Saroyan.
Another big challenge is tone, and this is where the production stumbles most. Stage director John de los Santos – inspired by Stephen Gammell’s 20th century children’s books “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” – goes to great lengths to give us a bleak and visually unrelenting version of the show. There isn’t an ounce of color on the stage, from Tara Roe’s far too tidy black and white costumes to Liliana Duque Pineiro’s efficient but underwhelming set. There’s little sense of time or place, no conception of the flurry of London or the chaotic Fleet Street neighborhood in which these characters live. The production feels claustrophobic and sterile.
The director also gives us a fussy framing device, which – according to his notes – envisions the prologue as depicting an extended family tradition involving the reading aloud of Sweeney Todd’s tale. A young child is forced to participate in the reading by playing the role of Tobias, an act that impairs his ability to separate fact from fiction or right from wrong.
This overwrought back story, which comes across as way too Inside Sondheim – complete with a reference in the director’s notes to “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods” – doesn’t damage the overall production all that much, except for taxing the acting abilities of the otherwise well-prepared chorus, but it doesn’t help it, either.
All this dourness might still have been effective. Minimalism can be striking, and de los Santos is quite good at capturing the darkness of the show. (Erik Vose’s shadowy lighting design helps, but it was marred by some sloppy execution in terms of timing at the performance I saw.) But the director seems to have forgotten that “Sweeney Todd” is often quite funny.
Sure, it’s black comedy at its blackest, but time and again, Sondheim’s lyrics, and, indeed, the crazy meat-pie storyline, are laugh-out-loud amusing. (This production lacks a nifty slice-and-slide barber chair-contraption effect, common to many productions of the show, which is essentially the loss of another major comic moment in the second act.) In terms of direction, the laughs are consistently underplayed. In such numbers as “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest,” Hollis and Gawrysiak struggle to achieve comic impact.
Perhaps I’d be more amenable to the monochromatic approach if there were a bigger payoff. But after the unrelenting visual palette of black and whites, the production lacks the shocking flood of color – we all know it’s going to be blood-red, right? – that it so obviously needs. The actual result is pretty anemic.
The show didn’t need to be slasher-movie realistic – this is about the most sedate “Sweeney” I’ve seen in terms of violence, and I can respect that – but there was so much more that could have been done, either with lights or effects, to give the audience a visceral jolt.
Still, there’s a lot to like in this big and ambitious production, especially among the principals: Timur (who goes by one name) is a stellar Pirelli, with a great voice and outstanding acting presence, and Jon Lee Keenan’s Beadle is especially strong. While Castillo, as one-half of the romantic pairing, was drowned out at times by the orchestra, he sings sweetly and his acting is first-rate.
And while I’ve picked a lot on the direction and artistic interpretation, I do appreciate the risks taken with this show and the effort to make it new and fresh.
Then there’s the opportunity to once again hear Hollis, whose bristly Sweeney shouldn’t be missed. Full of rage and hurt, when he sings of “man devouring man, my dear,” this dark tale somehow seems all too plausible. His shivering menace could trigger flashbacks for men the next time they lean back in a barber’s chair for a straight-edge shave.
- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- www.fresnograndopera.org, 559-442-5699