Sweeney Todd – Reims Opera House, France

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Jerome Pradon in Sweeney Todd at Reims Opera House

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was performed at Reims Opera House, France.

Star rating: 3 stars ★ ★ ★

What the collective noun for a shedload of Sweeneys is, one can’t be certain ­– could it be a multitude of Sweeneys (as in ‘Multitude of Amys’ from another Sondheim masterpiece, Company), a Symphony of Sweeneys or perhaps even a Swoop of Sweeneys?

Whatever, there are quite a few productions of Sweeney Todd doing the rounds. The late, lamented Twickenham fringe effort recently won an award, while the Tooting pie-and-mash version is still slaying them in a pop-up re-creation in Shaftesbury Avenue. And the ENO’s posh, semi-staged, Terfel-and-Thompson turn will be arriving in St Martin’s Lane any day now.

But Sondheim’s genius spreads far beyond Broadway and the West End. Parisians have warmed to the Chatelet’s championing of his work over the past few years and it was wonderful, on the eve of his 85th birthday, to ‘attend the tale’ in the champagne city of Reims.

Fears that an American musicaI, spoken and sung in English by a predominantly French cast, might leave me almost on my tod (sorry about that!) in such a provincial setting were quickly dispelled by he coachloads of students crowding the 800-seat theatre’s foyer for Olivier Benezech’s contemporary spin that played for two nights at the packed and impressive Opera House.

Of the 1,450 tickets sold, 400 were snapped up by or for young people, the vast majority seeing live Sondheim for the first time yet, as Johnny Depp fans, knowing the story from the movie.

And how they lapped it up! It was heartwarming (and hugely encouraging for the future) to see them animatedly discussing a long, absorbing and demanding show as they sat waiting to be taken home shortly before midnight – the late finish due to a weird 8.30pm curtain-up.

Maybe they were expecting a whole lot more gore, as per Tim Burton’s film, but Benezech kept the red stuff down to a minimum with much throat-slitting left to the imagination.

This was the Sweeney starring noted French thespian Jerome Pradon that first saw light of day at the Chateau d’Hardelot in Condette, a village on the outskirts of Boulogne, last summer and was favourably reviewed here (see MTR August archive).

Pradon, recently seen in the West End as Ivan in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Olivier-nominated in 2004 for Pacific Overtures at the Donmar, nicely captured both Sweeney’s obsession with revenge and his total lack of interest in Mrs Lovett beyond what she could do to further his mad quest for retribution.

Alyssa Landry, an American actress with strong French connections who sang at the 80th birthday celebration for Sondheim at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010, started uncertainly as Nellie, perhaps thrown by the unexpected absence of laughs or claps for her ‘Worst Pies in London’.

But she thoroughly redeemed herself in duet with Pradon either side of the interval with ‘A Little Priest’ (the puns hard to convey in the surtitles) and a brilliant ‘By the Sea’, two highlights of the evening.

Julien Salvia deserves a special mention for his excellently sung and acted Tobias – his ‘Not While I’m Around’ was a treat – but Catherine Arondel was not raddled or dirty enough as Sweeney’s wife-turned-beggar Lucy. It seemed unlikely he could kill her one minute and recognise her the next.

Two cast changes from its Condette debut saw Franco-American actor Maxime de Toledo taking over as a much younger, more handsome Judge Turpin than we are used to (but powerful of voice), and Marie Oppert, recently one of the leads in Chatelet’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, replacing Sarah Manesse as Johanna.

Benezech, a longtime Sondheim fan who directed an English-version Follies in Toulon a couple of years ago, had Sinan Bertrand’s Beadle Bamford whipping the perverted Judge (rather than him self-flagellating) which hinted at a sexual relationship in this updated treatment.

This Beadle, sharp-dressed and quietly sinister, was a far cry from the sycophantic, unctuous creation that Ian Mowat so memorably makes him in the Tooting triumph.

Sondheim’s music and a cast of nine doubling up as chorus on a minimalist but effective set were well served by the nine-strong Reims Opera Orchestra under conductor Daniel Glet.

And while not the best Sweeney ever, it was certainly fit for purpose. I’m happy to have seen it, happier still that the good folk of Reims young and old, who are more used to La Boheme, supported it and had a great time with the work of ‘birthday boy’ Stephen Sondheim.

Jeremy Chapman

Readers may also be interested in:

Sweeney Todd at London Coliseum – full cast revealed – News

Tooting Arts Club Sweeney Todd staged in pop-up theatre on Shaftesbury Theatre – News

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