San Francisco Opera Sweeney Todd Review – A Bloody Good Show

A highlight of San Francisco Opera’s 2015-2016 season is Stephen Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd," playing through September 29 at the War Memorial Opera House. Sondheim billed this as “a musical thriller,” and while no one is quite sure whether it is actually an opera or a musical, all would agree that this production does justice to Sondheim’s story and original concept. The dark sets and extraordinary music, from both singers and orchestra, underscore the horrific tale of the “demon barber of Fleet Street,” while also highlighting tender moments and comic touches.


Sweeney (Brian Mulligan) gives Judge Turpin (Wayne Tigges) a "shave"


The plot revolves around a vengeful barber and the proprietess of a failing meat-pie shop who join forces. Sweeney Todd is a damaged, bitter man returning to London after doing time in the Australian penal colony. He is bent on exacting revenge from the judge who unfairly accused him in order to steal his lovely wife and sweet young daughter. His partner in crime is Mrs. Lovett, who freely admits to making the worst pies in London. Their fates intertwine when Todd establishes his barber shop above the pie shop and begins dispatching one customer after another with his trusty blade. Mrs. Lovett, contemplating how to do away with the evidence associated with her tenant’s activities, seizes on an opportunity to improve the quality of her products at the same time.


Mrs. Lovett (Stephanie Blythe) sings about the worst pies in London


At its core the story is bloody, perverted, and horrifying — and an underlying sense of debauchery and evil comes out in the ominous music that accompanies the action. But the sense of horror and dread is tempered by comic numbers such as Mrs. Lovett’s musical declaration that her shop offers “The Worst Pies in London.” Later her duet with Todd in “A Little Priest” is clever and comical, in spite of the fact that the topic is cannibalism, as the two principal characters exchange ideas about how different customers yield different flavors of pie.


Sweeney Todd (Brian Mulligan) and his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett (Stephanie Blythe)


The two leads, American baritone Brian Mulligan (Sweeney Todd) and American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (Mrs. Lovett), each playing these roles for the first time, do a superb job as one would expect of the San Francisco Opera. The twisted mind of Sweeney is apparent at each moment, while Mrs. Lovett’s comic relief, dreaming of a quiet life “by the sea” as she serves her pies, is magical.


Act II opens with everyone clamoring for the new meat pies


In a parallel story line, Johanna, Todd’s now-grown daughter, falls in love with a young sailor who attempts to rescue her from her evil guardian, the judge. Johanna’s haunting ballad, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” is beautifully sung by soprano Heidi Stober. Baritone Elliot Madore, playing the part of her lover, Anthony, offers a tender and unforgettable love song in “Johanna.”


Johanna (Heidi Stober) and Anthony (Elliot Madore)


The musical highlight, however, comes from yet another member of the excellent ensemble cast. That honor goes to tenor Matthew Grills, who, in the role of Tobias, brings down the house in Act II with “Not While I’m Around,” a beautiful ballad, pure Sondheim, that has been covered by many artists, including Barbra Streisand.


Tobias (Matthew Grills) assures Mrs. Lovett that "Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around"


The musical originally opened on Broadway in 1979, directed by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. It then had a revival in 2005. Between those two productions, "Sweeney Todd" won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.


The first production by a major opera company occurred in the mid-80’s, by the Houston Grand Opera, which staged it again last spring. It was performed by Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in 2011.


This San Francisco Opera production is a treat on many levels. The musical itself is an American treasure and its treatment at the hands of world-class soloists and a fine ensemble cast is second to none. It is definitely worth catching one of the remaining performances.



The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller by Stephen Sondheim





September 12 (7:30 p.m.), 15●(7:30 p.m.), 18●(7:30 p.m.), 20●(2 p.m.), 23●(7:30 p.m.), 26 (7:30 pm), 29 (7:30 pm), 2015


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond

Originally directed on Broadway by Harold Prince

Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick

Originally produced on Broadway by Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, Robert Fryer, Mary Lea Johnson, Martin Richards in association with Dean and Judy Manos


San Francisco Opera co-production with Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris and Houston Grand Opera

Approximate running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including one intermission

Sung in English with English supertitles


First performance: New York; March 1, 1979


Sweeney Todd (Brian Mulligan) ♪

Mrs. Lovett (Stephanie Blythe) ♪

Johanna (Heidi Stober) ♪

Beggar Woman (Elizabeth Futral) ♪

Anthony Hope (Elliot Madore) *♪

Tobias Ragg (Matthew Grills) ♪

Judge Turpin (Wayne Tigges) ♪

Adolfo Pirelli (John Easterlin)

Beadle Bamford (AJ Glueckert) ♪


Production Team:

Conductor - Patrick Summers

Conductor - James Lowe* (September 29)

Director - Lee Blakeley*

Production Designer - Tanya McCallin*

Lighting Designer - Rick Fisher

Chorus Director - Ian Robertson

Choreographer - Lorena Randi*


* San Francisco Opera Debut ♪ Role Debut ● OperaVision Performance

San Francisco Opera Orchestra, San Francisco Opera Chorus and San Francisco Opera Dance Corps


San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue (at Grove Street) 
San Francisco, CA 94102
Main line: (415) 861-4008
Box Office: (415) 864-3330


sfopera website


©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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