A review of the Sydney Opera House performance of 'Sweeney Todd'
|Catching the final show of Sweeney Todd at the Sydney Opera House is a swish, inviting affair: audiences enjoy sipping champagne prior to the show, rather than the usual chips and coke consumed at less sophisticated venues.
As someone who has never been interested in opera, I would have to say that Sweeney Todd could well be the perfect introduction to the genre. I expected to see arrogant old ladies in fur stoles but instead found an audience of many different age groups and styles. Many were more senior, but they had left their monocles at home, it seemed. Having secured what I considered the best seats in the house, some folk probably expected me to wear some kind of dead animal, but then again that’s probably just a stereotype gleaned from old movies.
Operatic misconceptions aside, the story of the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is twisted and romantic, tragic and funny all at once. Themes of heartbreak and insanity, obsession and vengeance permeate through this story of cannibalism and meat pies – the fact that some opera-goers turn their nose up at this show while musical-lovers find it a little too confronting adds to the intrigue of this penny-dreadful melodrama that doesn’t quite fit the mold.
Stephen Sondheim added a new dimension to Sweeney Todd back in 1979 when he gave the throat-slitting barber a history and reason to lose all reason. There’s no denying that Sweeney Todd takes part in some dreadful deeds, but you can’t help but feel empathy for the guy: how many would stay sane after withstanding the agony of being taken away from their young family to be shipped abroad as a convict on trumped up charges?
The show begins with the ensemble singing the menacing ‘narration’ to the story, inviting you to ‘attend the tale of Sweeney Todd’. The costumes and set immediately away advise you that this is a professional show, with some amazingly strong operatic voices. Warning: goosebumps may be experienced with the eerie atmosphere on stage.
There were certain songs and singers who could have benefited from slowing down just a little, in order to more effectively convey emotions such as longing and hopelessness. There were moments that deserved more pause, more feeling. More time and patience.
Whacky Mrs Lovett (Judi Connelli) pranced around in her red piggy-tails, making me wonder if this was ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’. The audience adored Judi, although she did have a slight habit of breaking into an Aussie accent at times. The show is thoroughly British, the story essentially London, making this quirk somewhat unwelcome.
The song ‘Epiphany’ is the turning point where Sweeney Todd decides what his fate will be, or rather what the fate of his customers at the barber shop will be: it illustrates his spiral into insanity and obsession. Just a shame that Peter Coleman-Wright did not seem as angry as the song needed him to be, not quite as desperate or homicidal.
However, in the last song of Act One, ‘A Little Priest’, Connelli and Coleman-Wright are obviously having a blast performing together. They thoroughly relish delivering the darkly humorous lines in the song, eliciting laughter from the audience at all the right moments. The sadistic joy in coming to terms with their evil plans brings the pair to life, with delightfully macabre results.
Another pair that work wonders together are the pretty, idealistic Anthony Hope (Alexander Lewis) and his beloved Johanna (Antoinette Halloran). Their singing is breathtaking and chill-inducing as all of the high notes are hit with impressive feeling and perfection. The harmonies are divine as the two perform the reprise of ‘Kiss Me’. Unfortunately the odious Judge Turpin (John Bolton Wood) and his nasty sidekick, The Beadle, (Geoffrey Harris) tend to drown out the young, innocent pair slightly as they stand below singing their accompaniment to the sweet tune.
Johanna and Anthony’s naivety and love for each other is an effective contrast to the conniving schemes and selfishness of most of the other characters in the show.
Judge Turpin’s solo, another rendition of 'Johanna', is a disturbing piece, both musically and visually, with the lighting of the innocent Johanna standing above lending further intensity and discomfort to the haunting number.
The biggest player in this show, though, was Peter England’s set: the ingenuity of the design was impressive, complete with revolving centre and industrial-esque props, possessing the flexibility to suggest a bakehouse, a street, an insane asylum and a parlour among other such locations. The set’s movement and effectiveness allowed for smooth changes in setting, plot and song, becoming a chameleon-like character in itself. The barber chair and the bakehouse provided wicked delights, and a few fun ‘ewww’ moments to boot.
The head of the asylum, Jonas Fogg (Andrew Moran) cuts a grotesque figure, his clownish makeup reminiscent of infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The actors playing the inmates of the asylum embrace their insanity with intense energy, turning from poverty-stricken street urchins to crazed folk with the desperate tearing of clothing and frantic movement. The scene set in this depraved place is suitably disturbing and brilliantly executed.
Street mountebank Pirelli is an amusing, flamboyant character, perfectly suited to actor Kanen Breen. Superb comic relief is found through Breen’s timing and humorous reactions, making ‘The Contest’ a lot of fun to witness.
Overall, the show was unique and enjoyable, a wonderful ‘opera musical’ with a vaudeville feel. I’m only disappointed that there was no related merchandise for sale after the show, other than a programme: CD’s and DVD’s had to be pre-ordered, as they are not available for another twelve days! This being closing night, it was a bit of a drawback.
As the ghost of Sweeney Todd lingers around Fleet Street, may many more audiences come to know and be astounded by the misadventures of the Demon Barber.
Meat Pie, anyone?