Music, News, Performing arts, Theatre

Sweeney sets the blood racing

Review: WA Opera, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ·
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 13 July ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

It is the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Sweeney Todd,  prompting revivals of the musical thriller around the world. Composer Stephen Sondheim also collaborated with Hugh Wheeler on the musical’s lyrics and scenario to produce a truly unified piece.

Based on Christopher Bond’s ghoulish 1973 play and a 19th century British melodrama, Sondheim’s version follows Todd’s quest for vengeance upon his return to London from an Australian penal colony. Todd is seeking the corrupt Judge Turpin, who had Todd transported, raped his wife and stole his daughter Johanna as a “ward” to be groomed to fulfill Turpin’s desires in marriage.

Todd teams up with failed pie-maker Mrs Lovett to kill unsuspecting patrons to his barbershop, whilst awaiting Turpin. The bodies provide the irresistible ingredient for Lovett’s now booming trade.

Director Hal Prince’s 1979 Broadway production was both epic and gothic, featuring a highly flexible stage with dynamic set elements. Few comparable venues exist in Australia, and director Theresa Borg’s current Sydney production is hampered by the poorly designed if spacious Darling Harbour Theatre.

The West Australian Opera has the opposite challenge with His Majesty’s Theatre, which dates back to the halcyon days of melodrama. Sound designer Jim Atkins works the acoustics well, and director Stuart Maunder and designer Roger Kirk retain almost all of the elements from Prince’s 1979 production but have responded to the narrow stage by compacting them. They have divided the original expanse of gantries into distinct banks left and right so that the effect is more of a columnar, crisscrossed set of points, than of Prince’s wide swirling maelstrom.

The performers, led by Ben Mingay as Todd and Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett, are fantastic, and so is the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the music direction of Brett Weymark. But while the spatial compromises largely work, there are points where the performances seem cramped.

Todd’s trunk, in which he hides the bodies, all but destroys the sightlines in his barbershop, where it should act as a significant but peripheral object. The chute connected to Todd’s mechanical chair for disposing of bodies is rather clunky, lacking the smooth efficiency which produces so much irony as he sings of his love for Johanna. The final scene where the waif Tobias (Joshua Reckless) goes mad at the sight of the bloodshed, and then surprises both the audience and Todd with use of the cut-throat razor, is anticlimactic given that Tobias must first sidle along a narrow band at the back of the set.

Mingay triumphs as Todd. While not a dynamically nuanced or varied delivery, his almost continuous basso profundo, launched feet apart and shoulders squared, makes for a wonderfully demonic barber. As an avenging angel come to punish the rich, the powerful and the whole of venal humanity, he recalls Rod Steiger’s Judd in the film Oklahoma! and it comes as no surprise that this is a role Mingay has played on stage.

James Clayton is a rather perverse Turpin, whipping himself like a penitent as he rationalises his wicked lust for Johanna. Fiona Campbell portrays the mad beggar who takes a strong interest in Todd’s shop, nailing the ranting song “City on Fire”. Emma Pettemerides as Johanna and Nathan Stark as her beau Anthony are rather more randy than in the original, making the repeated, interrupted refrain of “Kiss Me” more comedic than touching.

For all of Mingay’s brooding presence, the production is all but stolen by Halloran as Lovett. The role was famously written for Angela Lansbury, who produced a wonderfully blousy, pragmatic character whose true wish was a domestic, well-to-do life. Halloran by contrast is explicitly sexual and is clearly after Todd for his erotic allure rather than just his ability to secure her prosperity. She is constantly amused, flirtatious and suggestive: I lost count of how many times she rubbed her behind against Todd. Halloran  provides a live wire of electricity and sass running throughout this otherwise dark and unredeemed narrative.

Although WA Opera’s production does not establish any significant new precedents, it is a triumph of effective and affecting staging.

Sweeney Todd continues on July 16, 18 and 20. 

Picture above: Ben Mingay as Sweeney Todd and Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett. Photo by James Rogers.

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