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Published: Saturday, 11/23/2002

Bloodthirsty `Barber' lacks demonic demeanor


Victorian London was a place gray with soot, foul of odor, and teeming with vermin of both four and two-legged varieties. It was also the home of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Toledo Opera's opening of a three-performance run of Sondheim's masterpiece last night at the Valentine was uneven, but generally satisfying.

The opera tells the story of the once-mild Benjamin Barker who, upon returning to London after serving 15 years in an Australian prison, finds his wife poisoned and his 16-year-old daughter about to be wed to the judge who condemned him. Bent on revenge, Barker becomes Sweeney Todd and soon embarks on opera's grandest one-man killing spree.

Todd's partner in crime is the ever-jovial Mrs. Lovett. He slits the throats, she grinds the bodies into meat pies.

The role of Todd is one of the most complex in all of musical theater. His actions are depraved; his wrath is justified. He is an avenging angel who acts without permission.

Todd was sung by Gary Simpson who failed to fill out his character's emotional range. This was a Todd who lacked a killer instinct. He spilled plenty of blood, but never seemed to mean it. He said nasty things, but his tone was gentle. He threatened violence, but did not show it in his demeanor.

Myrna Paris brought far greater intensity to her burlap coarse portrayal of Mrs. Lovett. She growled and cooed.

Secondary roles were in many ways the strongest. Ethan Herschenfeld was clarion in voice and emotional affect as the morally despicable Judge Turpin. Fenlon Lamb as the Beggar Woman grew stronger as the evening progressed. So did Thomas Trotter who, as Tobias, was absolutely splendid in the evening's final scenes.

Yet, it was Leon Williams as Anthony who, while trying to steal away with his lover Johanna, ended up stealing the show. His singing was gripping and inspirational.

Toledo Opera continues to have problems solving the unattractive Valentine Theatre acoustics. Sounds thin and die in the upper balcony. The orchestra often sounds tinny, even when, as was often the case last night, they are covering the singers. Voices from the stage are easily lost.

Sweeney Todd will be repeated at 7:30 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets range from $20 to $90. Details: 419-255-7464.

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