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While waiting for the next major Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim addicts can tide themselves over with New York City Opera’s lush-sounding remount of Harold Prince’s 1984 production. (Prince reconceived his 1979 Tony-winning premiere for the opera company, where the work has intermittently bloomed, like an unexpected black bud, ever since.) Elaine Paige, the British star who has made her name in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, takes on the role of Mrs. Lovett, the devilishly resourceful purveyor of meat pies whose moneymaking instincts refuse to quibble over such peccadilloes as cannibalism. Timothy Nolen, who’s a Sweeney veteran (having played Judge Turpin in a concert version with Patti LuPone), memorably acquitted himself as the titular demon barber the night I saw the show, and the dramatic chemistry between the two leads was so frightfully perfect that I have little desire to return to see Mark Delavan, who performed on opening night and whose resonant baritone (and apparent outsize acting) can be experienced during most of the remaining performances in a run concluding March 28.
This Sweeney capitalizes on its stars’ uncanny ability to turn these perverse Dickensian cartoons into breathing, scheming psychological creatures, working stiffs who are sick of festering in their Fleet Street lot. Fate brings this middle-aged couple together; economic and emotional needs solemnize their satanic union. Prince exploits the Brechtian nature of the musical, though the actors excel in broad-stroke realism. Deep down, Paige’s Mrs. Lovett just wants to retire with enough quid to live by the sea with her man, while Nolen’s Sweeney can’t let the revulsion he feels toward his new mistress deter him from his self-appointed revenge on the city that destroyed his life.
Vocally, Paige and Nolen magisterially ride the oceanic orchestration (how marvelous to hear the fullness of Sondheim’s score in the grand acoustic expanse of the State Theater). Lyrically, there have been complaints of garbling, but for my money Paige does a clearer rendition than Angela Lansbury of the impossibly difficult “The Worst Pies in London”—and even matches her in fierce comic attack. And who could carp at the gorgeous legato of Nolen and Scott Hogsed’s rendition of “Johanna,” an instance of pure sublime emanating from tragicomic musical fusion? Given the unremitting cleverness of Sondheim’s songs, the supertitle display of lyrics only enhances the audience’s pleasure. The New York City Opera offering can’t match the quainter joys of seeing the work in a Broadway house, but what the production lacks in intimacy it more than makes up for in comically macabre force.