Sweeney Todd [SA]
Thanks to The Hills Musical Company’s latest production, the beautiful Adelaide Hills are alive with the sound of blood-curdling screams and great Stephen Sondheim music.
Sondheim’s ‘musical thriller,’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street with book by Hugh Wheeler, is based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name, which in turn was based on various early classic Melodramas.
The story tells of Sweeney Todd, who, as Benjamin Barker, was transported to the Australian colonies fifteen years prior to the show’s opening by Judge Turpin, leaving behind his baby daughter, Johanna, and his beautiful young wife - whom, after being raped by the Judge, is driven to taking poison. On his return, Todd/Barker starts up a tonsorial parlour (barber shop in today’s language) above Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop allowing him to not only seek revenge on Turpin, but help with Mrs Lovett’s fresh meat supplies (one may want to turn to sausage rolls or pasties after this).
This is one of Sondheim’s more complex scores relying heavily on rich harmonies and counterpoint; with this particular score seeming to have mood swings, moving from the discordant “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” through musical comedy-style numbers such as “The Worst Pies In London”, “By The Sea” and the hilarious Act One show-stopper “A Little Priest”, through to gloriously lilting ballads such as “Pretty Women”, “Johanna” and “Not While I’m Around”.
Musical Director Mark DeLaine handles the challenges of the score with his usual style and shows a great understanding of the score, adding touches to the arrangements that are just perfect. His orchestra sounds fantastic - watch out for the onstage appearance of Gordon Combes handling the accordion and Sondheim’s nuances to perfection - and the entire cast have obviously been extremely well drilled on their vocals.
As one can imagine, a musical about revenge, cutting people’s throats and turning humans into yummy comestibles isn’t your ordinary ‘fluffy’ toe-tapping fare - it is dark, very dark! Director Hayley Horton has presented a grotty, somewhat raunchy piece of musical theatre that is incredibly atmospheric; with a set by herself and Malcolm Horton of Victorian parlours starting to decay and a dominating centre stage structure that allows cast and props to seemingly merge into it. Ian Barge’s lighting design is suitably gloomy (but subtly bright when needed) and ends the production with a marvellous blood red wash rather than the usual blackout. Adding to the atmosphere are Jamie Jewell’s authentic (and in some cases, fantastically dirty) period costume designs.
The only thing missing, occasionally, from Horton’s otherwise tight direction is a sense of the dramatic - there are times when the tension needs to be heightened somewhat more. Also, as the show is not miked (Hooray!!!), diction does drop in places.
The Ensemble (Kate Anolak, Emma Bargery, Vicki Barret, Jon DeLaine, Sophia Dimopoulos, Ellis Dolan, Nicole Hartnett, Aaron MacDonald, Thomas Maher, Matthew Redmond and Wendy Rayner) are excellent in everything they do. This is one strong supporting cast!
Belinda Smith sings the part of Johanna beautifully and is (almost) a picture of loveliness, but needs to take something for her wig - it seems to slowly be devouring her head. Newcomer David Simmons is every inch the handsome young heroic suitor - he just needs to be more urgent in some of his Act Two scenes and once his voice becomes stronger, will be a talent to keep an eye on.
“King of Barbers and Barber of Kings” (paraphrasing “The Court Jester” perhaps?) Pirelli is played with marvellous eccentricity and flair by Eden Plaisted; with Fahad Farooque playing his simple, impish assistant, Tobias Ragg. Tobias tends to be one of those roles that is cast incorrectly in amateur productions, but not in this case. Farooque does an admirable job; especially singing the character’s ’litmus test’ song “Not While I’m Around” superbly - quite possibly the best rendition this reviewer has heard.
An almost unrecognisable Michelle Nightingale is the quintessential Beggar Woman exuding madness, bawdiness and pity in turns. Jamie Jewell once again gives a strong performance as the wheedling, unctuous Beadle Bamford and is just the performer to comfortably handle the extreme high notes required of his role. As Judge Turpin, Joel Valenti is faultless - he is warped and depraved rather than sinister and evil, in particular bringing to his self-flagellation scene (originally cut from the first Broadway production) a suitable amount of uncomfortableness for the audience and overall making one despise his weakness.
Known normally for her pretty, lovely leading lady roles, Fiona DeLaine stuns and surprises with her portrayal of pie-shop-owner Mrs. Lovett - she is dirty, grotty and fantastic; with her vocals being sensational and running the gamut of .musical ranges.
As the Demon Barber himself, Rod Schultz (pictured) is brilliance personified. Rather than play the role of Todd over-melodramatically, Schultz has wisely chosen to underplay the character, making him very human and believable: the audience never finding this man a monster - nor should they. His is a wonderful, dignified, captivating performance.
The opening line of the first number sums up what one should do with this production - “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”!