Theater News

Swooning over Sweeney in S.F.

Gay men — and other Sondheim buffs — go ape as the San Francisco Symphony performs Sweeney Todd with George Hearn and Patti LuPone.

George Hearn and Patti LuPonein the New York Philharmonic?s Sweeney Todd(Photo: Chris Lee)
George Hearn and Patti LuPone
in the New York Philharmonic?s Sweeney Todd
(Photo: Chris Lee)

According to a first-hand report, the San Francisco Symphony’s concert performances of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd this past weekend were received just as rapturously, if not more so, than the New York Philharmonic’s performances of the work last year. George Hearn and Patti LuPone recreated their roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett from the NY Phil concerts, as did Davis Gaines (as Anthony Hope), Neil Patrick Harris (as Tobias), John Aler (as the Beadle), and Stanford Olsen (as Pirelli).

Sweeney was a triumph,” proclaims my San Francisco source. “It was like a meeting of the clans last night: Every homosexual in the Bay Area was there, mouthing along through the entire show. From the second balcony, lyrics got a little muddy, especially in chorus numbers. Didn’t matter–we all knew the whole thing by heart. Much screaming. A good time had by all.

“Neither Stanford Olsen nor John Aler was billed in the ads. No idea why. Either the S.F. Symphony didn’t think them big enough names or they didn’t sign contracts till the last minute. But they were both gorgeous. (I still miss ‘If One Bell Rings in the Tower of Brae’). Davis Gaines appeared to have regressed to age 22, and was astonishing. Lisa
managed the same as Johanna–a little shrill on top, but a solid performance. The same for Victoria Clark as the Beggar Woman. I didn’t
realize Sondheim had padded her death scene so much; there’s very little chance any more that the audience won’t catch on to who she really is. Hearn and LuPone were absolute perfection, as you know. My favorite may have been Tim Nolen as the Judge: you could hear a pin drop after ‘Johanna,’ which took some doing with this crowd.”

Spoiler coming up: I had mentioned to my source that the secret of the Beggar Woman’s real identity as Todd’s wife had been lost in Lonny Price‘s staging for the Philharmonic concerts because the great Audra McDonald (the only African American in the cast) played both roles, and I asked how Price dealt with this in S.F. “I wasn’t watching closely,” he replies, “but I think Johanna played Lucy in the flashback last night. It wasn’t Victoria Clark. That makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it? Price could have used Heidi Grant Murphy (who played Johanna) in New York and put in a program note to the effect that arsenic darkens the skin. I’m joking!”

According to my source, Hearn had another stellar night in the role he originally played as a successor to Len Cariou during Sweeney‘s original Broadway run: “The Epiphany was Hearn’s only weak spot vocally–the only moment when I wished Bryn Terfel had done the role. But it works dramatically, and that’s all that counts, I guess. I don’t remember Hearn being so magnificently creepy 20 years ago. I also don’t remember him offering his throat to Tobias at the end, or having such barely controlled contempt for Anthony and Mrs. Lovett. He seemed to get endless mileage out of just holding still, with his hands folded in front of him and that gargoyle’s face, waiting…
waiting…waiting. It was wonderful to see him triumph. He and Patti fought over who got the last curtain call–he made her take it, but she and the audience wanted to give it to him (barely; Patti’s claque was in ecstasy). Did she prostrate herself before Sondheim in New York? Hearn merely knelt, but she threw herself prone on the floor. I think she really wants to be the Witch in the revival of Into the Woods–and who better?”

All is not lost for those who missed the San Francisco Sweeney, as it was taped for telecast on PBS and will surely also be available on videotape and DVD. “I’m glad they taped it,” my source remarks, “if only so you can see Nolen as the Judge. His
two scenes with Sweeney were electric. But the whole thing was amazing. On the way out, [my partner] said, ‘We don’t have to go to another show for the next 20 years.’ I sort of felt the same.”