Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Opera Victoria and Opera New Zealand
Originally Published at: Review: Sweeney Todd @ Sydney Opera House (scenestr.com.au)
Set in the late 1840s, Sweeney Todd is a gothic thriller folk story which follows a barber who opens a salon, with the plan of killing the judge who sentenced him to prison. In the process of executing his plan, he ends up executing most of his customers before sending them to Mrs Lovett’s Bakery to be minced up and baked into pies. Stephen Sondheim’s jarring and visceral score is perfectly matched by librettist Hugh Wheeler’s lyrical and shockingly gruesome text. Directed by Stuart Maunder, this is a co-production between Opera Victoria and Opera New Zealand which was first performed in 2015 and has since toured to Adelaide, Perth and around New Zealand.
Performed in Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, Roger Kirk’s costumes and sets bring us into the gloomy, grimy world of the London slums. Bordered on two sides by filthy, wooden, floor to ceiling scaffolding, a large revolving cube is wheeled on and off stage. Up the stairs and on top of the cube, we see into the salon where a barber’s chair sits above a large trap door. Utilising different sides of the cube, we see Mrs Lovett’s house entrance, pie shop, as well as the open chute where the dead bodies come out. Disappointingly, this central set piece stood more than halfway upstage which made it easy to miss many of the nuances of the work. Philip Lethlean’s dramatic lighting (realised by Jason Morphett) used shadows throughout by lighting from below the performers to reinforce the grim and bloody atmosphere. Under the baton of Simon Holt, the nine-piece orchestral ensemble skilfully brought Sondheim’s score to life in this 1979 musical horror.
Photos by Daniel Boud
In the titular role, Ben Mingay performed a nuanced interpretation of the character; more impassive and brooding than tortured and enraged. When singing, his voice was rich and beautifully resonant, even if the acoustics and articulation made it difficult to catch the words being spoken or sung. By the second act, his performance warmed to better portray the fury bubbling under the surface of this demonic character. Singing opposite Mingay was Antoinette Halloran in the role of the delightful and warm, yet completely unhinged Mrs Lovett. Much of plot’s comedy relies on this character which Halloran facilitated and executed flawlessly. Halloran’s vocal and physical characterisation showed layers of warmth and tenderness juxtaposed with desperation and lust which she delivered in a show-stealing performance.
Jeremi Campese gave a heartfelt and musically sensitive performance singing the role of Tobias. His stage presence and ensemble skills made him particularly enjoyable to watch in both his singing and dialogue. Ashleigh Rubenach and Harry Targett performed the roles of young lovers Johanna and Anthony with earnest sweetness. Margaret Tubiano’s beggar woman was engaging and amusing as was Dean Vince’s Judge Turpin. Rounding out the supporting cast, Kanen Breen was captivating and hilarious in the role of the slimy public official Beadle Bamford. Breen’s refined tone brilliantly matched charismatic and astute physical performance, particularly in his 'Parlor Songs' performance.
There were a few hiccups on opening night from a sound perspective; the balance between orchestra and singers was unstable, sound effects malfunctioned, and wigs and hats interfered with the singers’ microphones; all things I’m sure will smooth out during the season. Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera’s co-production of Sweeney Todd brings this melodramatic penny dreadful, murder comedy to life, exploring a universal (turn homicidal) story of pain and yearning, lust and revenge.