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Reflections on the Curtis Opera Theatre's presentation of Sweeney Todd

Ralph Malachowski

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posted by Ralph Malachowski on Nov 20, 2018 10:30am | comments


Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky

I join my hands in thanks for the many wonders of life;

for having twenty-four brand new hours.

The sun is rising on the forest

and so is my awareness.

--Thich Nhat Hanh


Curtis Opera Theatre presented Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, November 14 through 18, 2018, at the Philadelphia Film Center, formerly known as the Prince Theater, at 1412 Chestnut Street.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (hereinafter referred to as Sweeney Todd) is the theatre masterpiece with music and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, with Book by Hugh Wheeler. The original story is from a penny dreadful from 1846. Sweeney Todd appeared on Broadway in 1979 and has shocked and delighted audiences onstage and in film ever since.


The Curtis Institute of Music is to be commended for presenting this production in a commercial venue, fully staged, with costumes, lighting, and musicians from Curtis in the pit. It undoubtedly cost a fortune for the three performances.


Usually, readers will be keening for some pithy descriptions of shortcomings, or a comparison to celebrated interpreters of the past in the title roles. With Thanksgiving around the corner, let’s look at all of the elements of the musical in a fair and balanced manner. Okay, maybe with kind, constructive criticism and a bit of gratitude.


Sweeney Todd has had the good fortune to be performed by artists of the highest caliber: the magnificent actress Angela Lansbury and unforgettable Len Cariou on Broadway, and the estimable Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp on film. It would be both unfair and dishonest to compare the Curtis cast to these masters. These young singers, still studying at Curtis, do not have the stage experience, brilliance, or skill of experienced stars. Nevertheless, they are on public display to a paying public, so some comment is in order.  Generally speaking, the former Prince Theater is not a large house by American standards.  Even sitting several rows back proved challenging to the listener. Wayward diction and poor breath support made most of the dialogue unintelligible. Cliché opera singing where lyricism is valued over all else fought against the challenging wit and double entendre of the book.


Without naming names, some of the shortcomings were egregious, such as the holding of one loud note by one singer to garner applause after his number.  Many singers made no effort to be heard beyond the stage, almost as if they were still in a practice room with piano accompaniment. Some singers had a muffled, hyponasal quality to their sound, as if they were singing through a cold.


Stage direction was at times less than helpful. Emma Griffin had Johanna acting in a peculiar manner more akin to Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene, than to a girl using her fingers to count birds. The solution to disposing of Sweeney Todd’s many victims was to have them get up, undress down to their red long-johns, and calmly walk down to the pie shop to knit while being dead. After a few murders, it became ridiculous. No more so than the first victim, Pirelli, played and sung very well indeed by Dennis Chmelensky.  After being murdered, he sat in the barber’s chair with his chin in hand after he slowly and mysteriously undressed to his red underwear. He later skulked off to a corner of the set where he sat, in full audience view, for the remainder of Act 1. Conductor Geoffrey McDonald led his forces with brio, at many times keeping the music from totally engulfing the singers onstage.  Many of the singers in the chorus displayed fine singing voices. Taken in its entirety, this production of Sweeney Todd provided many youths in the audience with their first contact with live musical theatre at a bargain price. The Curtis Institute deserves our thanks for this fact.


In years to come, some of the singers in this production will create stage careers for themselves. In large part, they will have their experiences in this production of Sweeney Todd to thank for their future success.


Sweeney Todd was part of the Curtis 2018-2019 season. For more information, visit .


NOTE: Opinions are those of the author, and not necessarily those of or of any organization or business that the author is assosciated with.

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