Sondheim’s Demon Barber, Human Meat Pies Hit Paris: Review

Caroline O'Connor and Rod Gilfry in "Sweeney Todd" in Paris. The Stephen Sondheim musical is running at the Theatre du Chatelet through May 21. Photographer: Marie-Noelle Robert/Theatre du Chatelet via Bloomberg

The cannibals keep coming.

After “Tous Cannibales,” an exhibition of contemporary art at the Maison Rouge, Parisians are discovering “Sweeney Todd,” the demon barber of Fleet Street, whose victims end up in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.

It’s the first time Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical appears on a Paris stage (in English with French surtitles).

Unlike New York and London, Paris doesn’t have a thriving musical-theater scene. That field is occupied by the Moulin Rouge, the Lido and other cabarets offering bare-breasted, can-canning sound-and-light shows.

Even “Les Miserables,” a worldwide hit made in France, had only two short runs in Paris.

Jean-Luc Choplin, since 2006 director of the venerable Theatre du Chatelet, is determined to change that attitude. He has presented “Showboat,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady” and other classics -- to full houses and rave reviews.

Whether he would score such success in a commercial theater is another question: The Chatelet is heavily subsidized by the City of Paris, and the number of performances is limited.

“Sweeney Todd” nicely fits into that series of hit musicals. The 81-year-old U.S. composer, who attended the rehearsals and was wildly feted on opening night, was overwhelmed by the generosity of the French taxpayer.

Chamber Orchestra

“When I was a kid,” Sondheim recalls in the program, “30 musicians were normal in a Broadway show. Today, you’re lucky to get 15.” The Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, conducted with brio by David Charles Abell, is a chamber orchestra of no less than 45 instrumentalists.

However, even the lush sounds emerging from the pit can’t conceal the fact that tunefulness isn’t Sondheim’s strong suit. The score feels more calculated and cleverly crafted than inspired.

Lee Blakeley, the director who is a former assistant of David McVicar, and Tanya McCallin, the set and costume designer, don’t try to impress us with unconventional ideas. Their staging is unashamedly old-fashioned; the costumes are gorgeously Victorian.

The original story of the mad barber, who gives his clients a closer shave than they had bargained for, was set in the 18th century.

Christopher Bond, whose 1973 play is the basis for the musical, moved it forward to the 19th century and gave the hero a halfway decent motive: He returns to London after a long absence in an Australian penal colony to seek revenge on the evil judge who wrongfully imprisoned him.

Trap Door

Without getting submerged in knickknacks, the two-level set conjures up the age of the Industrial Revolution. On the upper level, factory windows look down on Sweeney’s barber shop with a trap door through which his victims are dispatched into Mrs. Lovett’s bakery on the ground floor.

The most amusing idea is the curtain with a map of Victorian London: After intermission, the Thames is blood red.

Rod Gilfry, who alternates with Franco Pomponi, is a powerful Sweeney, brooding and scary in his mad despair. Caroline O’Connor, who took over on short notice, is even better as the cannibal baker, hilarious in her pragmatic way of killing two birds with one stone -- to get rid of the bodies and supply her business with meat.

Among the rest of the cast, David Curry and Rebecca de Pont Davies stand out.

Curry has a ringing tenor voice and hams it up wonderfully as Pirelli, Sweeney’s fellow barber, who discovers what he’s up to and therefore is the first who has to go. De Pont Davies as the beggar woman who is not what she seems almost sounds like Richard Strauss’s Queen Clytemnestra, a part she actually sang on the opera stage.

Rating: ***

“Sweeney Todd” runs through May 21. After May 7, the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris will be replaced by the Orchestre Pasdeloup. Information: or +33-1-4028-2840. The sponsors of this season at the Theatre du Chatelet include the Fondation Accor, MasterCard Inc. and Credit Agricole Corporate & Investment Bank.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****             Outstanding
***              Good
**               Average
*                Poor
(No stars)        Worthless
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