Elaine Paige and Mark Delavan in Sweeney Todd(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Elaine Paige and Mark Delavan in Sweeney Todd
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Are we all agreed that Sweeney Todd is one of the true masterworks of the American musical theater? I hope so -- and it certainly seems so. Highly respected by music and theater critics alike, the magnificent Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler opus has also proven wildly popular with audiences in frequent performances by opera companies and regional theaters throughout the world. In recent years, it has also become a favorite for concert presentation by symphony orchestras.

It really says something that, like West Side Story -- another immortal musical in which Stephen Sondheim had a hand -- Sweeney continues to receive a great number of productions even though it's an extraordinarily difficult piece. In short, people love the show so much that they're determined to present it and are willing to pull out all the stops to do so correctly. I'm happy to say that I've never witnessed a less than competent performance of the piece. And the New York City Opera production -- staged by Hal Prince, director of the original Broadway Sweeney -- rises far above the level of competence.

At last evening's performance, the title role was sung by Mark Delavan; he's sharing the role with Timothy Nolen, who had a major success in the part when City Opera first did Sweeney Todd in 1984. I've had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Delavan triumph at NYCO in several operatic roles and, given his strong acting ability and magnificent voice, I suspected that he would be a fine Sweeney. (A few years back, he was wonderful as Horace Tabor in Douglas Moore's English-language opera The Ballad of Baby Doe.) My suspicions proved correct: Delavan is a major presence in the role with his huge, rolling baritone and his striking physicality. The fact that he's a very large man adds an extra level of scariness to the role of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If Delavan does not quite possess the top-notch musical theater acting skills of such Sweeneys as Len Cariou and George Hearn, he's still a force to be reckoned with.

Playing opposite him is Elaine Paige, the first lady of the British musical stage. For some reason -- probably because she's been so busy and successful across the Pond -- Paige has almost never performed on our shores. Indeed, her one Broadway appearance was as a replacement Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. With her splendid singing voice and high-wattage stage presence, she managed to make an indelible impression as Norma even though (1) she was quite severely miscast in the part, and (2) Sunset Boulevard is an abomination. So we should all be grateful that NYCO has brought her back to New York in a great show. As the meat pie-packing Mrs. Lovett, Paige is a worthy successor to the one-and-only Angela Lansbury; she's a brilliant musical comedian for whom the wide vocal and emotional range of the part is a challenge triumphantly met. (That said, the decision to give Paige the final curtain call in this production seems questionable. To play Mrs. Lovett is no stroll along the Thames, but the role of Sweeney Todd is so extraordinarily demanding that any performer who can handle it fully deserves the final bow -- if not a medal!)

City Opera has surrounded the stars with a remarkably strong supporting cast. As the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, Keith Phares and Sarah Coburn are just right in terms of vocal ability and physical appearance; Phares's performance of the achingly beautiful aria "Johanna" got one of the biggest hands of the evening, and he and Coburn thrillingly led the soaring "Kiss Me" / "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" ensemble. Though Keith Jameson is perhaps too tall for the role of the simple youth Tobias Ragg, especially opposite the Munchkin-like Elaine Paige, he sings and acts the role so winningly that questions of height seem unimportant; I've never heard a better rendition of "Not While I'm Around," one of the score's most famous and beautiful songs. Roland Rusinek, who blew me away with his laser-beam high notes when I saw and heard him as the Beadle in the 1999 L.A. Reprise! presentation of Sweeney that starred Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski, so I'm thrilled that NYCO has brought him to New York in the part. And as Pirelli, Andrew Drost -- like Rusinek -- scores by singing even the role's most fearsome high notes full-out rather than in head voice (and his Italian and Irish accents are both very amusing).

Aside from the impressive contributions of the opera singers listed above, this Sweeney is sparked by the first-rate performances of two musical theater veterans whose talents have perhaps never been fully appreciated. Walter Charles is deliciously creepy in the role of Judge Turpin; you'll want to run home and take a bath after his self-flagellating performance of the Judge's "Johanna," which is exactly how that number should make you feel. And Judith Blazer is the most moving Beggar Woman in my experience, complete with a flawless Cockney accent and the kind of singing and acting ability that would undoubtedly qualify her to play Mrs. Lovett.

Whenever City Opera does a musical, sound is a major issue. The company employs a discrete sound enhancement system for its opera peformances but, because it doesn't often present musicals in English, it has often come a cropper when more extensive, Broadway style amplification is called for. The happy news is that Abe Jacob's sound design for Sweeney Todd is the most successful I've ever heard at the New York State Theater for this type of show. It would seem that all of the principals and supporting players have body mikes, yet the production does not favor the sort of unnatural, overbearing amplification that you'll hear at Mamma Mia! or The Boy From Oz. (Note that the NYCO orchestra is completely "unplugged," thank heaven!) In fact, the clearest indication that Delavan, Paige, et al. are body miked is the fact that almost all of the Sondheim lyrics they sing are clearly intelligible, whereas the lyrics of the choral soloists -- who presumably are performing without such devices -- are not.

The physical production (sets by Eugene Lee, costumes by Franne Lee, lighting design by Ken Billington) has held up very well, and Arthur Masella has deftly recreated Prince's original staging. Perhaps needless to say, the large City Opera orchestra plays Sondheim's magnificent score to the hilt under George Manahan. Listening to these magnificent arias, ensembles, and choral numbers, it's mind-boggling to think that anyone ever charged Sondheim with not being able to write memorable melodies. Sweeney Todd deserves a place of honor beside Carmen, Aida, La Bohème, and Porgy and Bess as one of the great musical theater works in the history of human civilization -- and, as far as I'm concerned, it should be a regular part of the New York City Opera repertoire.