KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 30, 2001
They seem like strange bedfellows — a brand-new $800,000 opera and a small reprise of a 30 year-old musical. But they just happen to be written by the foremost living composer and librettist of American opera and American musical theater — Carlisle Floyd and Stephen Sondheim.
The two are contemporaries, septuagenarians born four years apart. The works are set close in time, too: 1853 London for Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and 1900 small-town Georgia for Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree.” Both composers are iconoclasts, stretching their performance medium, blurring the boundaries between art-forms. Neither writes in the lyrical, tonal style of their predecessors, and each is universally recognized as a brilliant composer and lyricist.
Carlisle Floyd’s operatic works are not about ancient princes and kings, but American folk traditions. Stephen Sondheim, often fascinated with the macabre, has written musicals about murderers and assassins. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the story of a vengeful barber who teams with a batty baker to grind up his tonsorial victims and serve them as meat-pies.
Last year, the Fritz Theater mounted a delectable production, which, now that they’re homeless, they’re reprising at St. Cecilia’s Playhouse. Once again, it’s a thoroughly tasty treat. The casting remains exceptional, with Duane Daniels outstanding, and in very fine voice, as the demented depilatator, and Melinda Gilb still superb and hilarious as the pulverizing piemaker. Sweet-voiced Kevin Browning and comically ditsy Rebecca Spear bring new energy to the ingénues, and Ruff Yeager is an ominous Judge. Mark Danisovszky’s accompaniment remains wonderful, and, under Bob Patterson’s confident direction, the chorus is stronger than before. The sole weakness of both productions is the slow, clunky set changes — though the “Sassy” sets are beautifully evocative.
Downtown at the Civic, “Cold Sassy Tree” is a masterful distillation of the popular, episodic novel by Olive Ann Burns. Drawing from his own roots, Carlisle Floyd humorously and compassionately captures the full flavor of the South. Most recreating the roles they initiated at Houston and Austin in this five-company co-production, the cast is superlative. The lush orchestrations call up Copland and Bernstein, and though the vocal lines are dissonant and show-slowing at times, there are some lovely, emotionally intense arias.
The dramatic and vocal prowess of the principals is flawless — baritone Dean Peterson as Rucker, the crusty grandpa who shocks the town by marrying a woman half his age, and silver-voiced soprano Patricia Racette as the modern young wife of the recent widower. At the heart of the story is this May-December marriage, but it’s really a memory play, lit in a golden glow — a nostalgic coming-of-age tale narrated by an adorably convincing John McVeigh as Will Tweedy, who gets his first kiss from the magnificent Megan Weston as the underprivileged mill-girl Lightfoot McClendon.
Maybe these people and emotions are a bit less than operatic, but Floyd, like Sondheim, makes his characters and their story impossible to resist.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.