This is just a quick note regarding Boston Conservatory's current production of Sweeney Todd, which completes its one-weekend run this Sunday in the Conservatory's brand-new, as-yet-unnamed theatre.
Okay - first, the bad news: the new theatre is a wonderful improvement over the tatty, claustrophobic space in which Conservatory students long performed; the seats are comfy, the sight lines good, everything is gleaming and brand-new. But alas, the space is still somewhat disappointing acoustically. It seems the rough dimensions of the old theatre remain in place, although now there's a genuine orchestra pit (hurrah!) and the hall has been swathed in dark, high-tech surfaces that we suppose were meant to work some kind of acoustical magic on it.
But wonderful sound has yet to pop out of the acoustician's hat. The trouble is that even with the new pit, the theatre is afflicted with balance problems - the orchestra's too loud (and the singers are still amplified over it, though not as much as they used to be). What's more troubling is that loud as it is, the sound feels slightly flat; the place booms, but doesn't resonate. So I'm not sure simply installing more sound absorption or whatever in the pit is the answer. It is a puzzlement. Boston Conservatory reportedly engaged acoustical engineer Larry Kirkegaard, who did the Shalin Liu Hall up in Rockport, to work on the space; somehow I don't think his job is over. In the meantime, my advice to the orchestra is: play softer.
But the good news is that this production of Sweeney Todd is quite memorable, and I would advise Sondheim fans to run out and grab tickets, only there aren't any - the show sold out weeks ago. There were a few odd artistic decisions here and there in the acting (neither the Judge nor his Beadle seemed at all formidable), but leads Robert Lance Mooney and Julie Thomas (above left) sang and acted superbly in notoriously challenging roles - although intriguingly, they traced different arcs over the course of the show. As Mrs. Lovett, Thomas was all comic bustle, to hilariously detailed effect - but she didn't seem in touch with the darker aspects of the role (particularly during "Not While I'm Around," sung quite affectingly by Dan Rosales, when she should be contemplating murder). Meanwhile Mooney, who seemed a bit withdrawn at first, blossomed in the second half to truly operatic heights of intensity. There were other strong turns from Mike Heslin as Anthony, Marissa Miller as Johanna, and Daniel George as Pirelli. And it was wonderful, after years of stripped-down chamber versions, to hear the great Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations (even if at too high a volume).
The artistic idea that seemed to be in director Neil Donohoe's sights was the ongoing question of whether Sweeney Todd counts as musical or grand opera. It is, of course, about 75% sung-through, I think - but on the other hand, its musical style isn't always operatic; Sondheim switches from opera to operetta to music hall and back again at a moment's notice. And the work is probably best sung by singers with Broadway training - which essentially covers technical resources with a casual, I'm-just-tossing-this-off-like-a-regular-guy kind of articulation. Still, what Donohoe and this cast demonstrated is that in its climaxes, Sweeney Todd reaches the musical and emotional intensity we expect of grand opera - in fact, it eclipses quite a few works in the repertory. And much of the show was a dark hoot, to boot. It was the kind of Conservatory production one wishes could find a longer life in some other space around town. The only thing it really needed - like grand opera - was super-titles. Sondheim's lyrics are just too delicious to miss, and some of them always are, even in halls with clearer acoustics than this one. Can we all decide on that in the future? Sweeney (and maybe all Sondheim) needs super-titles to be super.