Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had its world premiere on Broadway in 1979. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler (with whom Sondheim had collaborated on 1973’s A Little Night Music), the production won eight Tony Awards and opened on London’s West End the following year. In Sydney, Sweeney Todd was performed for the first time in 1988.
Sweeney Todd has re-appeared locally in the form of a 40th anniversary production, produced by TEG Life Like Company and directed by Theresa Borg. On Sunday, it wrapped up its Sydney run and is now heading to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne for six shows.
Inspired by British playwright Christopher Bond’s 1973 stage iteration of the story of the fictitious Sweeney Todd, the musical takes us back to London in the Victorian era, to which Todd (Anthony Warlow) has returned after spending 15 years as a convict in Australia. He learns from Mrs Lovett (Gina Riley), who runs a poorly-regarded pie shop, that his wife, Lucy, was attacked by Judge Turpin (Daniel Sumegi) and Beadle Bamford (Anton Berezin) and perished, and that his daughter, Johanna (Genevieve Kingsford), is living with Turpin as his ward. Mrs Lovett offers Todd the room above her shop so that he can return to his former trade.
Todd has murder on the mind, fixated on exacting revenge on Judge Turpin who he blames for ruining his life. Quickly, however, the target of his vengeful thoughts widens to encompass society in general. He begins a murderous spree with the hapless visitors to his barber shop as his victims. Mrs Lovett then suggests a partnership of sorts, whereby she will use his victims to fill her pies. Bodies are dispatched from his barber’s chair straight to her bakehouse and the shop begins to bustle with customers.
This macabre musical is widely regarded as a masterpiece, featuring one of Sondheim’s most complicated scores and a highly operatic sensibility. Staging Sweeney Todd is an ambitious undertaking at any time. Looking at the names of the performers cast to lead this production and the assembly of a 22-piece orchestra (led by musical director Vanessa Scammel) to reproduce its notoriously challenging musical pieces, one could assume it’s achievable here.
But on opening night in Sydney, a number of issues present. Firstly, while its seating is comfortable, the 2,500-seat Darling Harbour Theatre seems too cavernous a space for this kind of event, with the bulk of the audience seated some distance from the action. Secondly, there are some sound and lighting issues – notably, microphones coming on after a performer has begun singing or speaking, and moments where the cast and orchestra are not quite in sync. The sound quality itself isn’t impressive and it also feels as though extra rehearsal time would be beneficial. These are issues that hopefully will be resolved by the time the production opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Thursday (the intimacy of that venue compared to the ICC’s Darling Harbour Theatre should immediately be advantageous).
There are also some issues with the interpretation itself. In her director’s note in the program, Borg highlights that Wheeler’s stage directions ordinarily see Todd emerge from the grave to tell his story. Here, he arrives during a séance led by a woman. While the motivation to make this change is well explained in the note, it is not an idea that adds anything to the staging of the show, our understanding of events and their significance, at least in the way the idea has been currently realised. Additionally, Borg comments that it was the intention that “Lucy … be front of our minds as [Todd’s] vendetta plays out”, but the strength of the character can’t sustain that responsibility.
There is, however, much to be praised about this production, starting with Warlow’s magnificent portrayal of the title character. It’s a world class performance not just because of his spectacular baritone, but because he is so utterly convincing as the homicidal barber. His articulation of the lyrics indicates a thorough investigation of the character and his motivations. His Todd is fittingly menacing and vengeful, but also patently broken and in mourning for all that he has lost. Warlow proves once again he is one of the finest performers on any stage today.
Riley’s expert comedic chops are an asset to her portrayal of the cockney pie shop owner, Mrs Lovett. She may not appear as coarse or as callous as the text implies, but hers is an interpretation that still works and she has some good chemistry with Warlow. Debra Byrne is good as the ill-starred beggar woman (though the lyrics she sings are, at times, difficult to understand), and Tod Strike (who is on in place of Michael Falzon on opening night) convinces as rival barber and unscrupulous swindler, Adolfo Pirelli.
Daniel Sumegi lends a commanding stage presence and powerful voice to the pitiless and predatory Judge Turpin, and Jonathan Hickey is one of the standout players as Tobias Ragg, delivering one of the night’s most memorable vocal performances in ‘Not while I’m around’.
In terms of the design elements, Charlotte Lane’s dilapidated mansion is a well imagined 19th century backdrop to the events that unfold. That main set sits stage right, while the orchestra is seated downstage left. Catwalks weave through the space the orchestra occupies, facilitating performer entrances and exits. Meanwhile, Kim Bishop’s costumes offer a beautiful representation of Victorian era London and the musical’s peculiar cast of characters.
Sweeney Todd remains a fine piece of musical theatre and Warlow demonstrates what a stellar choice he is to lead any contemporary re-staging of Sondheim’s classic. Hopefully, the move to the 1,500-seat Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne (not only smaller, but a venue hosting similar scale musical theatre productions all year round) will see some of the technical challenges posed by the ICC Darling Harbour Theatre quickly resolved. On top of that, given the team is now several performances in, the Melbourne production should be a more well-oiled machine.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – MELBOURNE SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre (Exhibition Street, Melbourne)
Dates and times:
Thursday 20 June, 7:30pm
Friday 21 June, 7:30pm
Saturday 22 June, 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Sunday 23 June, 1pm and 5:30pm
Tickets: From $99 excluding booking fees