The world is an eat-or-be-eaten place, or so the lead characters of the Atlanta Opera's fine new production of Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical tale "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" have it. They take that metaphor far more literally than most: Sweeney (Michael Mayes) is a murderous barber who slits the throats of his customers, and Mrs. Lovett (Maria Zifchak) is the comically pragmatic baker who — unable to bear letting anything go to waste — bakes his victims into meat pies.
Mayes makes for a compellingly sinister and seething Sweeney, internally miserable but taking an outwardly visible delight in planning and exacting his revenge; his strongest emotional attachment is, believably, to his razors. Zifchak as Mrs. Lovett brings a touch of much-needed humor to the grim situation. She’s especially strong in Act 1’s final number, “A Little Priest,” in which the two characters recognize their parallel aims and celebrate with some giddily macabre jokes about cannibalism.
Designer James Scott’s costumes and Eugene Lee’s rotating set stick closely to the classic look and feel of the original Broadway show. Audience members who walk in familiar with that production ready for a new take on the characters and setting may be disappointed, but the show’s visuals still effectively convey a gritty vision of a cruel, dirty and corrupt London.
Christopher Bozeka shines in the supporting comic role of the showy mountebank Adolfo Pirelli: He performs the part as a broad satire of a flashy, pompous, old-school Italian opera singer, a fitting and funny take that he pulls off with aplomb.
Many musicals have roles in which success depends on how well the performer tackles a particular song: The role of Anthony in "Sweeney" depends on how well the performer sings the three-note name "Johanna," a repeating romantic melodic line that becomes the character's motif. Cobb County native Joseph Lattanzi's fine tenor voice fills this and other elements of the role with believable and touching yearning. He and Vanessa Becerra as Johanna provide a compelling romantic lift to the story in a subplot that, in less capable hands, can easily come across as dully sentimental and predictable. (Johanna is Sweeney's daughter from whom he was separated when she was a baby.)
Overall, the plot and music of “Sweeney Todd” are unusual in the realm of Broadway musicals, and Sondheim’s lyrics similarly have a rare sort of incisive wit, sharp cynicism and intelligence. Still, arguments about whether “Sweeney” is truly an opera are bound to be inconclusive. If “Sweeney” can be said to be “operatic,” it’s not so much in the style of music or even in the fact that the show is almost entirely sung through, but in the way the music, words, visuals and narrative work seamlessly together, and this is precisely where the Atlanta Opera excels. Call it opera or musical, the production inarguably provides an unforgettable conclusion to the Atlanta Opera season.
The Atlanta Opera presents “Sweeney Todd”
7:30 p.m. June 12; 8 p.m. June 15-16; and 3 p.m. June 17. $50-$156. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.