Reviews/Musical Theatre

WAAPA cooks up a killer finish

4 April 2023

Dark and demonic, Sweeney Todd is also hugely entertaining. The musical rounds out the first season from WAAPA’s graduating classes in terrific style, writes an enthralled David Zampatti.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, WAAPA 3rd Year Music Theatre students 
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, 3 April 2023  

Don’t you miss the good old days before CCTV and smartphones with GPS and Google Maps? Back when no one knew where you were – or what you were getting into? 

Even if it was a pie. 

When the (happily fictional) Sweeney Todd and his accomplice Mrs Lovett were making mincemeat of their customers on Fleet Street in the weekly penny dreadful The String of Pearls, its Victorian-era readers couldn’t have imagined that the murderous barber and baker would join the parade of 19th century monsters – Hyde, Frankenstein, Gray, Dracula – who continue to chill and thrill us two centuries on. 

(They might also be unaware that the themes of revenge and covert cannibalism upon which Christopher Bond weaved his adaptation of the original bloodbath have a long, illustrious history in the theatre stretching back to Euripides’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.)   

Pirelli (Marcus Frost) attends to a customer. Photo: Stephen Heath

I confess I’m not a fan of these lugubrious horrors, but if one were to win me over it would be Stephen Sondheim’s darkly entertaining musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – especially when performed with the energy and talent of the graduating class of WAAPA’s musical theatre course. 

Briefly, just for the record, Sweeney (Patrick Volpe) returns to London after 15 years a convict in Botany Bay, falsely convicted by the perverted judge Turpin (Cameron Taylor) who has, Sweeney believes, caused the death of his beloved wife Lucy (Emily Lambert) and is grooming their daughter Johanna (Mia Beattie).  

He falls in with a failing pie-maker, Mrs Lovett (Mia Guglielmi), and together they concoct a plan to wreak revenge on the judge and his beadle (Matthew Manning) by a tonsorial and culinary method you don’t need me to detail here.  

When their first attempt is thwarted, they continue their gruesome practice on an industrial level, and soon the hirsute population of London is declining rapidly and Mrs Lovett’s pies are the toast of the town. 

Meanwhile a young man with the Dickensian name of Anthony Hope (Mitchell France) is smitten by Johanna, who Turpin has imprisoned in a madhouse. Hope and Todd hatch a plan to rescue her and deliver the judge to the barber’s vengeance. And all hell breaks loose. 

Guest director Sonya Suares is a Sondheim specialist, and she and musical director Craig Dalton bring his freewheeling, narrative-driving score to exciting life. 

Volpe is a sensational Sweeney Todd. Saturnine and piercing, he carries the character and its songs with ease and power. Guglielmi is the perfect foil for his brooding menace; comic, vivacious and yet yearning. They are a memorable pair. 

Patrick Volpe and Mia Guglielmi make a memorable pair. Photo: Stephen Heath

The romantic couple Anthony and Johanna are inevitably overshadowed by their murderous elders, but France and Beattie are charming and sweet, and handle roles without particular vocal highlights handsomely.  

The character roles are perfectly played (Marcus Frost’s faux-Italian Pirelli and Declan Allen as his naïve assistant Tobias are notable); the ensemble work is faultless and often startling; and while this is not a dancer’s show, its movement, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, never puts a foot out of place. 

The whole production looks exactly as it should; its sets and costumes (Elouise Greenwell) and lighting (Kirby Jones) are exemplary; and the show’s 140-odd minutes fly by. 

Suares is well aware of the messages behind the mayhem of Sweeney Todd (neatly explained by the barber as “the history of the world is who gets to be eaten and who gets to eat”) and she lets that message drip, red raw, through the floorboards of the play without drowning its entertainment. 

Sweeney Todd is the final instalment of the first batch of shows from WAAPA’s theatre graduating classes — after the acting course’s Much Ado About Nothing and the performing arts course’s Orlando. On the strength of this trio of outstanding productions we are in for an exciting year from our industry-leading academy.    

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is at Geoff Gibbs Theatre until 5 April 2023. 

Pictured top: Patrick Volpe is a sensational Sweeney Todd, with Mia Guglielmi his perfect foil as Mrs Lovett. Photo: Stephen Heath

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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