Sweeney Todd was performed at the Château d’Hardelot (in the quiet village of Condette in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France).
Following the Stephen Sondheim cycle at Paris’ Theatre du Châtelet that gave us a full-scale Sweeney Todd two years ago, complete with symphonic orchestra and a large cast, we have been treated to a chamber version set in a contemporary world. As cleverly directed by Olivier Benezech, already responsible for the innovative Follies at Toulon Opera last year, the cast of nine plus nine musicians did more than justice to the material.
Jerôme Pradon, who was seen just over ten years ago in Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse (for which he won an Olivier nomination for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical), made an impressive Todd, registering all the nuances in his portrayal from scary to vulnerable.
Alyssa Landry, fresh from She Loves Me at the Théatre de Paris, made an equally capable Mrs Lovett. No stranger to Sondheim after performing in the BBC Proms Sondheim’s 80th Birthday Celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010, she was, along with Caroline O’Connor at the Châtelet, one of the funniest, as well as one of the closest to the Angela Lansbury original Mrs Lovett, I have ever seen. Her two duets with Pradon, ‘A Little Priest’ and ‘By the Sea’ were not surprisingly the highlights of a magical evening.
Jacques Verzier also brillantly explored all the layers of Judge Turpin, making his character much more than just a villain, while the equally excellent Sinan Bertrand as his sidekick Beadle Bamford added some ambiguity to their relationship, further displayed by the divinely decadent costumes created by Frederic Olivier.
Handsome Julien Salvia, who interestingly played Anthony in the French Language version in Switzerland, gave us a moving portrayal of Tobias with a beautiful rendition of my personal favourite Sondheim song in a score ‘Not While I’m Around’.
The fact that those four principals had non-operatic voices made a welcome contrast with the previous incarnation of Sweeney at Châtelet where the cast choices often lean a little too much toward the operatic.
Of course Anthony and Pirelli both require that type of voice and so does Johanna: all three characters were well served, respectively, by the capable Flannan Obé (recently seen in La Nuit d’Elliot Fall), Scott Emerson (the other American in last year’s Sunday in the Park With George cast at the Châtelet) and the lovely Sarah Manesse whose dancing talents were shown off by Johan Nus’ lyrical choregraphy.
Another surprise was Catherine Arondel as Lucy, adding some beautiful dancing in ‘Poor Thing’. The dance dimension, very much present from the opening number on, was one of the most innovative aspects of this new version, together with the highly effective lighting design by Regis Vigneron and the minimalistic but ever so clever set design by Christophe Guillaumin.
This was clearly a Sweeney Todd for tomorrow, sweeping off all the slightly dated elements of Sondheim’s masterpiece, and the good news is there will be a future for the staging in the gorgeous setting of the Château d’Hardelot. There are also dates scheduled in Calais and Reims.
The audience’s reception was amazing, especially for such a complex, non-commercial and English-speaking piece, showing that the French musical-hating public is slowly starting to change its mind. In this country, where the Tim Burton film version was strangely not even advertised as a musical, and where the prejudice is that the genre is frivolous, sentimental and fluffy, Sweeney Todd is indeed a good choice to show them otherwise.