This is the 40th anniversary production of SWEENEY TODD whose full title is SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – A MUSICAL THRILLER.
When Stephen Sondheim saw a play directed by Christopher Bond in 1973 he saw the possibility of composing a musical regarding the murderous Sweeney Todd. Enlisting the aid of Harold Wheeler to write the book, Sondheim went about writing the music and lyrics for the new musical, and when it debuted on Broadway in 1979 it garnered eight Tony awards.
This 40th anniversary production runs for only four days at the International Convention Centre. I am puzzled by this as this is a very ambitious and wonderful production. Perhaps it was the fact that the cavernous Convention Centre would be difficult to fill for a more lengthy season which is a shame.
This space also did not contain a full lighting rig and though Taylor Allen did an excellent job with the resources he had there were some scenes that seemed a little bit too dimly lit. Perhaps they would have been more contrast if it were not for ‘light leaking’ which also lit the curved sides of the theatre nearest the stage.
Once you got past these obstacles by willing myself to ignore them a wonderful evocation of this story and musicality was realised.
There is speculation that the character of a vengeful and murderous barber first appeared in French legends in the fourteenth century but the tale really became popular in the eighteen hundreds, the period in which this play is set.
Although it is classed as a musical its themes of revenge, lust and murder are of a more operatic nature.
The tale is both a simple yet at the same time complex story. At its heart, is the hate filed character Ben Barker who has been wrongfully convicted and sent to the colony of Australia. He returns, with a new name ‘Sweeney Todd’, to the place that is the source of his unhappiness, London, seeking to murder Judge Turpin who has taken his daughter as a ward who Turpin has locked away for himself.
Sweeney Todd sets up a barber shop on the first floor of a pie shop in Fleet Street run by Mrs Lovett who recognises Todd prior to his exile. After cut throating his first victim, a deceitful rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli, Mrs Lovett decides that the corpse should not be wasted and uses the remains to stuff her meat pies. She rises from being known as the worst pie shop owner to the most acclaimed because of who secret special ingredient.
More murder and mayhem ensues as tensions rise as to whether he can entice Judge Turpin and his beadle (associate) to the barber shop and the gleaming razors that wait . Can Johanna, Sweeney Todd’s daughter, escape from a mental asylum with her new love, a sailor named Anthony Hope? Will Sweeney Todd ever see his daughter again? And what is the fate of his alliance with Mrs Lovett and her pie making enterprise?
Sondheim as the great musical genius successor to the previous musical royalty of Rogers and Hammerstein and Learner and Lowe, stands head and shoulders above most composers even today. To my mind, his genius lies in taking unusual subject matter for adaption to the musical form. In this production, with a wonderful orchestra led by Vanessa Scammell. Sondhem playfully incorporates tunes of a nursery rhyme character, irish jigs, mellow dramatic ballads, Bernard Herrmann strident shrieks all into a cohesive whole.
Into this dark subject matter, Sondheim introduces nuanced pieces of black humour that pleasingly leavens the blood lust of both Todd and Lovett.
Anthony Warlow as Sweeney Todd is in glorious voice as the tragic barber. Gina Riley who seems to have comedy in her DNA extracts the mischievous wicked humour subtly injected into the script. Riley’s vocal interplay with Warlow is highly entertaining.
Daniel Sumegi as the lecherous, vain Judge Turpin displays a gorgeously rich baritone whilst Genevieve Kingsford has a sweet soprano which aptly suits the Victorian damsel in distress. As the fraudulent Italian conman Adolfo Pirelli, a comic Barber of Seville type, Tod Strike’s physical and musical dexterity provides a lovely contrast to Anthony Warlow’s dark and burnished vocals.
A special mention must be made of Debra Byrne as a beggar woman who can in the same tune rise from a hideous cackle to a glorious soprano.
Occupying about quarter of the stage area in a corner quadrant was the small orchestra ably conducted by musical theatre veteran Vanessa Scammell. The fact that the positioning of the orchestra did not swamp the vocals was in part due to Scammell’s nuanced orchestra as well as by the sound design headed up by Emily Adams.
Given that Charlotte Lane’s set design had a chunk of its space sacrificed to the orchestra it nonetheless comfortably encompassed the various large choral ensembles and principals in its split level design.
Designed as a Victorian Gothic mansion, though static, various back projections and clever use of props meant that we were viewing was a full theatrical production.
This production was deftly directed by Theresa Borg, who despite a large cast was able to delineate each character’s qualities and eccentricities in the way that the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company exploited their talented ensemble in Gilbert and Sullivan productions.
Navigating the obstacles of a small set with various steps and ladders the choreographer Jo-Anne Robinson nevertheless rose to the challenge with the principals
scuttling up and down a ladder to the barber shop, sliding into the set itself and creating a banquet table full of characters.
SWEENEY TODD played the ICC Theatre between Thursday 13th and Sunday 16th June, 2019.
This was a highly enjoyable and polished production and I am at a loss as to why it had a cruelly short four day season.
I hope it returns in the near future in a more traditional theatre venue which would further amplify this production’s fine qualities.