Sunday, January 15, 2006

Sweeney Todd and Wozzeck: An unlikely pair

My review of a NYC-based opera and a musical that illuminates dark concepts with bright minds:

Darkness descends upon New York City as vengeful murderers stalk their prey in two theatrical adaptations. Eugene O’Neill Theatre hosts Steven Sondheim’s sinister story of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd, whose namesake character seeks revenge against a corrupt judge. Mere miles apart at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera executes their production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. The opera’s title character also seeks revenge; this time against an adulterous partner and a reprobate society.

Sweeney Todd’s minions, confined to a one-room madhouse, pluck strings, sound horns and declare his story with accomplished voices. This rarity in musicals, to find instrumentalists among the cast, helps to overcome complications in the one-set design. The cast also finds themselves in a constant state of flux; rearranging furniture, pouring buckets of blood and climbing atop of wooden constructions to keep up the show’s momentum. By way of these unusual stage conventions, the mental institution certainly suits Sweeney Todd. The brilliance of the central theme is only surpassed by the execution of an outstanding cast, including Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd and Patti LuPone as his neighbor Mrs. Lovett, a human meat-pie distributor.

Wozzeck (Alan Held) exhibits an increasing insanity, suggesting he too would benefit from a visit to the physch ward. In lieu of the loony bin theme, set designer Robert Israel portrays Wozzeck’s growing madness and impending doom by enveloping the stage in almost constant darkness. This places the actors on the cusp of visibility, a difficult feat performed effectively by lighting designer James F. Ingalls. Towering, monotone structures surround the singers and provide a backdrop for the oft appearing silhouettes of Wozzeck and company. Another technique used to capitalize on the morbid motifs in this opera involves the pigment red. As Wozzeck kills his lover and later himself, a blood-colored canvas glows in the background.

Red proves popular in both shows. The Sweeney Todd crew also uses liquid red by pouring blood from pail to pail and wearing it on lab coats. The most important constant in both shows, however, is that instead of killing each show with an enigmatic concept, the killers’ stories come to life with the excellent use of extreme and engaging tactics.

(Sweeney Todd is still running at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre/Wozzeck's run at the Met ended on January 6)


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