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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A group of men singing on stage
Musical theatre, News, Reviews

Bleak, brutal and bittersweet

Review: WAAPA 3rd year Music Theatre, Company ·
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA, 19 March ·
Review by Ron Banks ·

“What’s the point of getting married?” bachelor Bobby is asked by one of his many married female friends.

“Er, for company?” queries Bobby, uncertain of why one would commit to a lifetime with the same person, underlining at the same time the emptiness and loneliness of his own unmarried existence.

First performed in the early 1970s, Sondheim’s musical Company is now a timeless reminder that for many young people, getting married – and staying married – is a vexatious state of mind, and that the resolution of marital problems is never going to be easy.

The famous music theatre composer’s slate for the sketches that form Company is his home city of New York, a place where, it appears, hundreds of thousands of marriages go to die. Despite the slick New York night-clubs and bars, chic apartments and even the railway station that comprise its backdrop, Sondheim’s take on young relationships is bleak and bitter-sweet.

The play is a series of vignettes about young people who get married, the focal point of which is the one who does not get married. Bobby is a bachelor celebrating his 35 years in the single state with five couples who have opted for marriage as a resolution to the problem of curing loneliness. Love doesn’t seem to come into it, although they protest that it does. Well, these are cynical New Yorkers, you know, and this is a Sondheim scenario where too much sentiment is not good for you.

This WAAPA production is played in the round, an appropriate metaphor for these young couples as they circle around Bobby, trying to get him to get him to commit to marriage so he can be as unhappy as they appear to be.

Bobby has three girl friends over the course of the evening, but he is not really a seducer in the Don Juan league. Rather he is a confused young man who has not really found love and he backs out of relationships before they can get too serious.

We get to know more about Bobby through his interactions with his married friends, at the same time catching glimpses of his friends’ fears and foibles in regard to that particular state of legally-sanctioned relationship.

Conor Neylon captures Bobby’s personality and doubt with a convincing sense of confusion, and his delivery of the often-difficult Sondheim songs grows in confidence as the show moves through its many short, snappy confrontations.

This is a musical of set-pieces, with each couple showing what their lives have become in song, dialogue with Bobby, and the occasional spot of group choreography.

Each performer gets the chance to shine, and the graduating students make the most of their opportunities with style and pizzazz. Their outward sparkle is a poignant counterpoint to their characters’ inner insecurity and doubt. WAAPA director Andrew Lewis has wrangled their combined talents into a stylish ensemble. The costumes and settings are timeless, neither transposed to the present day, nor anchored back in the 70s. (The smart phones are the only disorientating clue that it might be the present.)

There is a stand-out performance from Annabelle Rosewarne as Amy, the girl who, on her wedding day, suddenly decides she does not want to marry Paul. She expresses her fears in a patter-song worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan but far more hip.

Company is famous for its song “Ladies Who Lunch”, delivered with convincing mockery and cynicism by Victoria Graves, as Joanne, whose marriage a second time is not going well.

Company is quite brutal in its dissection of modern marriage, but strangely fascinating and hugely entertaining in the hands of these young WAAPA performers.

Brutal yet honest.

But that’s the point of Sondheim, isn’t it? It’s why we love his work.

Company runs until March 23.

Pictured top: Conor Neylon, as Bobby, with the male ensemble. Photo: Jon Green.

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Black Swan State Theatre's production of Assassins (Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), Directed by Roger Hodgman; Heath Ledger Theatre, 15th June 2018, photographed by Philip Gostelow.
Musical theatre, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A kind of magic

Review: Black Swan Theatre Company, Assassins ·
State Theatre Centre of WA , June 20 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Created by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman in 1991, Assassins tells the stories of nine people who committed or attempted to commit political murder in the US over the past two centuries.

It is a giddy, mind-warping ride on a time-machine. Alternative history meets magic realism, perfect in this disturbing age of “alternative facts”.

I gave birth to my youngest son, Carter, in California a decade ago. And while I am desperate to return on holiday, my little American (he was 10 weeks old when we left the country) is reluctant, on the basis of “Trump and guns”. When fear and loathing of America’s president and gun culture plagues even a West Australian pre-teen, you can safely say Assassins has contemporary resonance.

0N8A0459 Nick Eynaud, Caitilin Beresford-Ord, Brendan Hanson, Natasha Vickery, Will O'Mahony. Assassins. Image credit Philip Gostelow.
Masterfully directed by Roger Hodgman: Nick Eynaud, Caitilin Beresford-Ord, Brendan Hanson, Natasha Vickery & Will O’Mahony. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

John Wilkes Booth (Brendan Hanson) tries to rationalise his assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theatre, blaming him for the Civil War and destruction of the South. Leon Czolgosz (Cameron Steens) rants about the plight of the downtrodden working class. Charles Guiteau (played to comedic perfection by Will O’Mahony) really, really wants to sell copies of his book.

The musical, masterfully directed by Roger Hodgman, with musical direction by Jangoo Chapkhana, moves through various times and places with imagined meetings between the assassins. They rub shoulders at a fairground and a bar. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Mackenzie Dunn) extols the “virtues” of her lover Charles Manson to Sara Jane Moore (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) before the pair gleefully shoot at a bucket of KFC. All of the assassins appear before Lee Harvey Oswald (Finn Alexander) in the Texas School Book Depository, egging him on to shoot JFK.

The result is stunning, thanks to Weidman’s innovative narrative structure and thought-provoking characterisation, and Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s impressive set, onto which are projected photographs and archival footage.

The production invites reflection about the quiet (and not so quiet) desperation of the marginalised, disenfranchised and, perhaps, the mentally ill. It cleverly humanises these names from history without moralising or condoning their crimes.

And as I sat savouring the quirky genius of Sondheim’s music and lyrics and the flawless performances by the Black Swan cast, I had one of those Connectedness-Of-All-Things moments.

You see, I did not name my son after former US president Jimmy Carter, as friends often assume (Trump’s opposite in so many respects); I named him after a San Franciscan showman. While pregnant, I read Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, a fictionalised biography of the magician known as Carter the Great. Much of the novel centres on the mysterious assassination of President Harding, who dies shortly after taking part in Carter’s stage show in 1923.

Mackenzie Dunn, Nick Eynaud. Assassins. Image credit Philip Gostelow.
Photographs and archival footage are projected onto Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s impressive set. Pictured: Mackenzie Dunn & Nick Eynaud. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Harding is not among presidents featured in Assassins, though. There’s Lincoln, McKinley, Roosevelt, Nixon, Kennedy, Ford and Reagan. But no Harding. I had to Google it later: Turns out Harding died of pneumonia after a bout of food poisoning. Gold had simply invented the assassination as a plot device.

So here’s my theory/alternative history: The seed was planted when Gold attended a production of Assassins in New York 1991. He was inspired by the story of Lincoln’s assassination at the theatre in 1865. He loved the musical’s unabashed blending of fact and fiction. After years of labour, his homage to Assassins, his novel/baby, was born in 2001.

Gold’s gift to the world is a novel all about a great escape and a little bit of magic. Watching a musical about political assassinations mightn’t sound very upbeat but somehow Assassins was a great escape from our collective anxiety about what Carter sums up as “Trump and guns”. Even while staring down the barrel of a gun.

And that is a kind of magic.

Assassins plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until July 1.

Top: The cast gave flawless performances. Pictured: Will O’Mahony, Natasha Vickery, Nick Eynaud, Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Brendan Hanson in “Assassins”. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

 

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