“You can’t imagine the rapture in store…” Tobias exclaimed, which character was magnificently sung by Michael Kuhn, at the beginning of Act II during Opera Omaha’s production of Sweeney Todd last night at the Orpheum Theatre. Firstly, I agree with Toby. The show was rapturous. Secondly, and frankly, Kuhn was part of a 4-way-tie with lighting designer, Pablo Santiago, the Omaha Symphony itself, and the Opera Omaha Chorus, in their apparent race to steal the show.
Kuhn’s voice, authenticity, tangible emotion, and did I mention his voice!!!... as he portrayed Tobias Ragg, were a hearty jewel in the production’s crown. Every show should be so lucky as to have Kuhn’s clear and evocative instrument and personae woven into its tapestry.
The Omaha Symphony, under the direction of Conductor, Hal France, was at its best. Sweeney is an orchestral feast both melodically and texturally. Under France’s baton the audience left quizzically-full for having just watched a 3-hour epic metaphor on comically-accidental-cannibalism.
The Chorus, was larger-than-life. The ambitious choral score of Sondheim’s masterwork, was presented with dexterity, clarity, and an appropriately-scary flare.
Santiago, is to be congratulated. He brought this human tragedy’s waltz between the morbid and the comical to life with a haunting display of contrast, color, and shadow. Santiago’s accomplishments in this season are profound. I can’t wait to see what he does to Eugene Onegin, later this spring.
I am a huge, huge Sweeney fan. The truths of the libretto’s commentary on the condition of mankind, and its intricate architecture within Sondheim’s marvel of a score, are unforgettable, delightful, and terrifying. As a 22-year-old nerd, dared by a friend to come up with an afternoon activity uniquely, “New York,” I once took out a NYC library student membership to view the original cast recording in the Lincoln Center’s archives.
So, I was admittedly thirsting for Opera Omaha’s success with this show. Now that I’ve seen it, all I can do is think about how much I wish I could watch it again. Leaving a show frightened to my core by an existential crisis, while simultaneously humming any one of about 6 tremendous tunes, was funny-kind-of-hell-of-a-way to spend a Saturday evening. I was charmed by all of it.
Susan Clement’s stage direction, for her first Sweeney, much less her company debut, were courageously tuned into what makes Sondheim dazzling. It comprehended the horror, humor, and humanity of Sweeney vividly. Exquisite.
Back to the race for “stealing the show” I mentioned to start: Despite their valiant and, invigorating attempts to snag the trophy, Zachary James, securely held onto the spot light, and I had nightmares about it in the most enjoyable way. James made Sweeney as much a human as he did a demon. He was thrillingly-chilling, in this his Opera Omaha debut.
It would be a shame not to mention the exceptional vocal performances of Ashley Emerson and Jonathon Johnson as the (slightly though altogether not “traditionally”) more romantic pair of the story, Johanna and Anthony. Katy Lindhart, as the Beggar Woman, was hauntingly beautiful, befitting the macabre kaleidoscope of the night. All three performers were part of the onslaught of Opera Omaha debuts.
It was refreshing to see a piece of work, so often tackled in the realm of the visceral, be presented so beautifully in the theatre of the mind. The flexible set, with its pervasive homage to blades, the collision of very human reds, with a very deathly gray scale, as well as the consistent betrayal of the 4th wall by cast and lighting alike… all coalesced into a vibrantly memorable presentation.
There was a casual and believable kinship amidst the cast. To sing such expansive music, while still appearing to have a very relevant intimacy and a common past within the story, was bizarrely captivating.
I hope Omaha celebrates this achievement in its discussion of our city’s music scene for years to come. Audiences should buy whatever seats are left to give it the recognition it deserves.
I grew up in church music and musical theatre. From my collegiate career and beyond I've traveled through opera, the symphony, the theatre and worship as a student, a performer, an entrepreneur, and a journalistic correspondent. I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to share with you some of the incredible and fascinating endeavors I continue to undertake in music and the arts. I don't need you to see the world the way I do, but I'll do everything I can to help you enjoy it as much as I have.