SAN FRANCISCO—As October begins, a reflection of a fantastic fall production of a dark, gore-filled musical thriller is only appropriate. 

I was lucky enough to catch the closing weekend of the San Francisco Opera’s production of the three-time Tony award winning Sondheim classic, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a 19th century English barber who is falsely convicted and sent away by the malicious Judge Turpin who covets Barker’s wife. After 15 long years of undeserved imprisonment, he returns seeking revenge—reinvented as Sweeney Todd. He befriends Mrs. Lovett, the dreary self-proclaimed baker of the “worst pies in London” who now owns the space below his old barber shop. Mrs. Lovett is more than happy to assist Todd in his vengeful bloodlust—literally. In his quest to Judge Turpin, Todd begins gruesomely murdering the clients who come in for a shave. Not wanting to be wasteful of perfectly good, fresh meat (in our time of navigating a world wreaked by the detriments of global warming, can’t we all appreciate some efficient conservation and reusing of resources?), Mrs. Lovett bakes them into meat pies. The oblivious Londoners dine on their neighbors and their joint business blossoms as the twisted tale of revenge, love, loss and redemption unfolds. 

Todd's customers receive a closer shave than they bargained for.
Todd’s customers receive a closer shave than they bargained for. Photo courtesy SF Opera.

This being the first time I’ve seen the show live and also the first time seeing a production by the SF Opera (or any opera, for that matter), I immensely enjoyed the show overall. “Sweeney Todd” is truly a “classic musical theatre” type show, meaning that operatic voices suit the music best, in my opinion.

This production starred Bryan Mulligan, who made a great Sweeney Todd. His gruff delivery of lines was believable and consistent; his vocals were solid, really encapsulating the bitter anguish of a person whose true loves had been ripped away from him. Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett, however, outshined Mulligan and the rest of the cast by far—a mixture of exceptional vocal ability and perfect embodiment of Mrs. Lovett’s sardonic, bustling, matter-of-fact demeanor.

The most disappointing portrayal, regrettably, came from Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; he failed to exude that overt sleaziness and evil that is necessary and innate in the character. And as the driving antagonist of the plot, it simply makes the musical all the less engaging when you aren’t truly disgusted, fearful or emotional towards him. I try to refrain from comparing live shows/original theatrical productions to film adaptations, but even Alan Rickman’s portrayal in the Tim Burton 2007 movie-musical version knocked this one out of the park. 

Sweeney Todd (Bryan Mulligan) depicted in an emotional, death-filled final scene. No spoilers! Photo Courtesy Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle

“Sweeney Todd” ran from September 12 through the 29 at the War Memorial Opera House. The production was directed by Lee Blakeley, who made his SF Opera debut, and conducted by James Lowe.

The next show on the SF Opera’s season schedule is “Lucia di Lammermoor.” For tickets and more information, click here. For more information about the SF Opera, visit their website at