Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street returns to the Opera House this month in a triumphant production that impressively captures the dark heart of this epic Victorian melodrama. It is packed with some of the most spectacular music to ever hit the musical stage and a cast of deliciously devious characters.
Surely no one has escaped hearing the grisly tale about the wronged barber Sweeney Todd returning to London after transportation (to Australia!) to take bloody revenge on the corrupt officials who destroyed his family. Upon arriving he meets the most practical of villains Mrs Lovett who certainly knows how to seize an opportunity, making the most out of this sudden supply of meat to further the financial success of her ailing pie shop. But, of course, all is not quite as it seems, and our villains are blind to what will become both of their downfalls. It is dark and funny and completely watchable.
Director Stuart Maunder conjures up a haunting, brooding aesthetic that effortlessly captures the grim reality of life in Victorian London and the exhausting struggle of any person not born into wealth. He then breathes life into this world through a tight group of talented performers with immense vocal skill.
Ben Mingay leads the company as Sweeney and, while he may yet have a little way to travel to completely land the clarity of diction required, he nevertheless delivers a charismatic and obsessive rendition of this most famous of demon barbers, his deep bass vocal tone adding a new and intriguing power to the well-known score. He has a strong and sensual physical presence and inhabits his role with real menace.
And bubbling through this bleak world of struggle, Antoinette Halloran’s Mrs Lovett rises to take control of the story and the stage. Delightfully earthy and mischievous, her Lovett is dangerously disarming, flirtatious, and completely frightening as she smilingly claws her way to her goals of wealth and respectability. Halloran is at her absolute best in this role, funny and driven, and manages to bring a welcome new dimension to this iconic character while staying true to the essence of its creation. Brava.
But the tale would not be complete without a bevy of believable supporting characters and the rest of this talented ensemble deliver their moments with a convincing focused energy. Margaret Tubiano’s Beggar Woman is memorable – probably the best this reviewer has ever seen – as she floats across the stage like a ghost, switching between ethereal soprano and vulgar bawd with confidence and conviction.
Kanen Breen’s Beadle is also vocally arresting, his extraordinary countertenor sound and grasping obsequious manner perfectly capturing this repulsive creature. Jeremi Campese is a gorgeous vulnerable Tobias and Harry Targett and Ashleigh Rubenach are delightfully humorous and innocent as Anthony and Johanna. But every performer shines impressively and well deserves their solo curtain calls.
It’s wonderful to see the skill of legendary designer Roger Kirk working so well to complete this very visual spectacle. The stage is dominated by giant factory doors at the rear through which roll various set pieces, and although perhaps designed to fit in taller prosceniums for its best effect, it nevertheless works well enough in the very low Drama Theatre.
The costuming is quite perfect, conveying the subdued tone of the era while adding sensual undertones and a flourish of music hall vibrancy. The lighting by Philip Lethlean and Jason Morphett is also a highlight, swinging between curtains of light, and pinpoints of focus on key moments, again with a touch of music hall style. The sound design didn’t quite seem to have found its feet in this space yet, and was a little muddy at times, and the Factory Whistle will be disappointingly thin for Sondheim true believers.
But overall, this is an impressively conceived production, and it is delivered impeccably by a stellar cast. Maunder certainly knows how to place interesting performers in great roles and release their talent in the most satisfying of ways under the helm of a superb creative team.
This spectacular rendition should appeal to both newcomers and die-hard Sondheim fans equally and is well worth your visit to the soaring sails of the Sydney Opera House.
Sydney Opera House
A Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera Production
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Conductor: Simon Holt
Director: Stuart Maunder
Set and Costume Designer: Roger Kirk
Lighting Designer: Philip Lethlean
Sound Designer: Jim Atkins
Lighting Realiser: Jason Morphett
Cast: Ben Mingay, Antoinette Halloran, Dean Vince, Jeremi Campese, Harry Targett, Ashleigh Rubenach, Margaret Tubiano, Kanen Breen, Benjamin Rasheed.
Sweeney Todd will be performed until 27 August 2023.