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Princeton Festival Opens Inaugural Season With Entertainingly Creepy Sweeney Todd

Nancy Plum

When the Opera Festival of New Jersey closed its doors several years ago, audiences feared that the summer opera experience in the Princeton area was gone forever. Although Opera Festival had lost some of its charm (and its picnicking capabilities) when it moved from the Lawrenceville School to McCarter Theatre, it retained its focus on presenting operatic repertoire and providing a summer showcase for area singers. Princeton audiences may like their picnics, but professional singers need performance outlets wherever they can find them, and when Opera Festival ended, a vacuum was created in the musical landscape.

This vacuum seems to have been felt most by Dr. Richard Tang Yuk, Director of Choral Activities at Princeton University, whose earlier operatic successes this year included collaboration on Peter Westergaard's Moby Dick at the University. For at least the past year, Dr. Tang Yuk has been compiling the structure to not only revive summer opera production in Princeton, but also to expand it into an organization that presents a full range of artistic activities. The Princeton Festival began its renaissance this past Sunday afternoon with a production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, held in the Kirby Arts Center of the Lawrenceville School. Although there were no picnickers in sight, it was clear that the nearly full house of people who came out of their gardens on a 75 degree day have missed summer opera in Princeton.

Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979, one of the first "crossover" works between musical theater and opera – works which were structured like musicals, but with music so complex and demanding that a new type of operatic voice was required to pull it off successfully. The story, based on an 18th-century individual whose actual existence is questionable, is dark and a bit gory, but retains its black humor despite being tempered by the past twenty years of slasher movies.

For this production's principal singers, Dr. Tang Yuk looked to the national opera scene and the world of Wagner in particular for the character of Sweeney. Although one might argue that Sweeney and Wagnerian heroes are not that far apart (and certainly equally as complex), bass Harry Dworchak must have found this role a bit of comic relief from his usual worldwide career of singing in Wagnerian Ring cycles. Mr. Dworchak had one of the few voices that could be heard cleanly over an orchestra that was as muted as it could be, but was still a bit too loud. As Sweeney, Mr. Dworchak was creepy from the minute he appeared onstage, a man obviously not cut out to be in this world.

Sweeney's foil, Mrs. Lovett, was performed by Kathryn Cowdrick, and was sung with the warmth and a bit of the wackiness needed to make this sordid story palatable. Romance in Sweeney Todd comes in the characters of Anthony, who arrives with Sweeney in London; and Johanna, Sweeney's daughter, who has been a ward of the Judge. Sarah Pelletier's solid sparkling voice carried well over the orchestra from her perch on Judge Turpin's balcony, and Scott Hogsed sang the role of Anthony with innocence and a dynamic and character range that will only continue to expand as he relaxes into the role. The other characters filled out the solid cast, especially John Easterlin singing a young and fresh Tobias Ragg, Douglas Perry in command as the arrogant Beadle, and Bev Appelton, filling in admirably as Judge Turpin. David Kellett and Evangelia Kingsley, singing the roles of Pirelli and the Beggar Woman, demonstrated the solid depth of the cast.

Richard Tang Yuk led an orchestra comprised of solid players in the pit, and it was commendable that one almost forgot the orchestra was there, so smooth and effortless was their playing. Dr. Tang Yuk also prepared a chorus of precise and accurate singers, many of whom had small solos within the show. Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer used the space effectively for staging, especially when turning the chorus from a Greek commentary chorus into the inmates of the local asylum.

Set Designer Mark Morton designed simple, but clever, sets which rotated to reveal scenes as necessary, thus leaving an uncluttered stage (Sweeney's barber's chair is a character unto itself). Lighting Designer Benny Gomes also used the back lighting of the stage to create appropriate effects.

As anyone who has seen Sweeney Todd can tell you, if you don't want to see a bit of blood and gore onstage, perhaps this isn't the show for you. Once one recovers from the antics of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, one can sit back and enjoy one of the more entertaining shows of the summer.

Sweeney Todd will continue at the Kirby Arts Center at Lawrenceville School on July 9, 15 and 16. Ticket information can be obtained by calling (609) 537-0071.


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