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Cannibal Crooner Broods in ‘Sweeney,’ Circus Imbroglio

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in ``Sweeney Todd'' by Stephen Sondheim, at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Sondheim’s 1979 musical is about a psychopathic barber who murders his clients, after which his partner, Mrs. Lovett, chops up the flesh for her pies. Photographer: Tristram Kenton/Cornershop PR via Bloomberg

March 23 (Bloomberg) -- These are desperate times, sings Sweeney Todd, and so they are.

Casting a popular light-voiced crooner to sing a dark, weighty role is surely a desperate move. The good news is that Michael Ball does an impressive job, dramatically speaking, in a new London production. He’s brooding and monomaniacal. He goes for long stretches without blinking. He stoops and mutters.

Lanky, with dark hair and sepulchral hollows under his eyes, Ball looks nothing like the affable blond MOR merchant he is for the rest of the time. It’s a surprising and enjoyable transformation.

If his vocal performance were of the same caliber, he’d be sensational. As it is, he indulges in too much crooning, rasping for effect, and singing off the voice (not fully supported from the chest). It’s too prettified for such a somber role.

It would be fine in most other West End musicals, where those things are part of the authentic idiom. Trouble is, opera companies have tackled Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, and we know what it can sound like with a really great voice in the role. Thomas Allen and Bryn Terfel have both done it well.

Ball is still very watchable. And he’s partnered by the superb Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett, the motherly pie-shop owner who bakes the demon barber’s victims.

She exploits her gags like an enthusiastic milkmaid, and even throws in a few perfect ad libs. (Let’s hope Sondheim, who’s famously watchful about accuracy, doesn’t hear about that.) As Mrs. Lovett falls deeper in love with the unresponsive Todd, Staunton pitches the level of desperation higher.

Boiled Kiss

It’s a risky strategy, and pays off well. At one point, she makes Sweeney open his mouth to accept a boiled sweet, but suddenly thrusts in her tongue for a French kiss instead. It’s both hilarious and horrible. Her great singing adds to the joyous complete-package performance.

Jonathan Kent updates the action to the 1930s. That means plenty of foggy dry ice, and a chorus that looks like it’s made up of charladies and unemployed miners. If it doesn’t bring much to the story, it doesn’t get in the way either, and the energy levels and clarity of storytelling are fine.

The spurts of blood from the victims, gushing out like champagne, hit just the right comedy-horror note. The chrome barber’s chair and accompanying chute are fun props too.

Some of the supporting cast wouldn’t make it on to anyone’s list of must-hear performers, which is a shame. They’re OK, yet no more. With a masterpiece this indestructible, it doesn’t matter. The piece still works its unfailing Grand Guignol magic.

Rating: ***.

‘Circus Tricks’

Plucky company Tete-a-Tete is a laboratory for new opera, and has done some fine work in the past. Their latest world premiere “Circus Tricks” has lots to offer, once you get past a lot of tedious exposition.

The opera by Michael Henry (music) and Adey Grummet (libretto) tells the stories of seven circus performers, including Barney the trick pony, gamely sung by tenor Christopher Diffey.

The knife thrower’s assistant longs to reveal her love for him. The contortionist feels lonely. The acrobats, who are brothers, squabble.

In the first half of the work, and a good amount of the second, these problems are revealed directly to the audience in long arioso monologues. The performers sing their own stage directions, along the lines of “Smile. Turn to audience. Present. Turn other way.”

If there were a better way to squash any incipient conflict or drama, I haven’t seen it.

Amusing Elephant

It’s also absurd that when the contortionist sings “Slip head through knees,” she doesn’t quite manage the stunt. Later, an elephant sits on her when she has supposedly tied herself into a knot, which is an amusing piece of staging.

Things pick up in Act 2 when the individual stories all reach their climaxes simultaneously and, in a neat twist, two possible outcomes are revealed.

The music is witty in a Stravinsky-lite manner, and the performers are all good. If young and glamorous Lily Papaioannou (Contortionist) doesn’t manage to fling her legs back over her shoulders and peer through her knees -- as not many opera singers could -- she compensates with a rich and seductive voice. That makes me hope someone will give her a role as Carmen before too long. Yvette Bonner (Trapeze Artist) and Simon Wilding (Acrobat) are also exciting performers.

Director Bill Bankes-Jones makes it all look authentically circusy, with plenty of feathers, tights and spangles. If the drama can be tightened and the score cut, there’s a good show waiting to get out.

Rating: **.

“Sweeney Todd” is at the Adelphi Theatre. Information: http://www.sweeneytoddwestend.com or +44-844-811-0053.

“Circus Tricks” is at the Riverside Studios through March 25, http://www.riversidestudios.co.uk or 020-8237-8111.

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

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson in London at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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