Photos – Daniel Boud

This production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous musical melodrama lives up to its subtitle of Musical Thriller, for it is thrilling in every way. From the chilling opening scene, where the excellent ensemble introduces the story of the mythological serial killer, I was captivated.

Stuart Maunder’s tight direction is everything you might want in a production of Sweeney Todd, balancing the dark concerns of injustice, tragedy and murder with Sondheim’s playfulness and dazzling wit. And his casting is very impressive.

Roger Kirk’s bleak, clever set and his Gothic makeup and costume design are just right to create the Dickensian decrepitude of Victorian London. Phillip Lethean’s brilliant lighting, and Jason Morphett’s recent realisation of it, conjures the malevolence of London fog. And the ghoulish downstage lighting of the ensemble set the tone for the entire show.

Ben Mingay is a striking, enigmatic Sweeney. He’s big and imposing and very grim. His rich, powerful voice is beautiful and terrifying. Physically, his repressed grief and rage have made his body stiff, and his face barely registers emotion, his eyes rarely twinkle. Every so often, in a comic scene with Mrs Lovett, Mingay might let a smile slip and his body soften but, for the most part, his countenance is scarily brooding and ready to explode.

Fifteen years before, Judge Turpin (Dean Vince), who had designs on Sweeney’s wife, exiled Sweeney to Australia and destroyed his family. Now Sweeney has returned and wants revenge.

Don’t be put off though. For all its gore, like Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd is played like a folk story in which the comic and the gruesome are impressively interwoven.

Most of the humour comes from Mrs Lovett, superbly performed by Antoinette Halloran. It is a wonderful role and as important as the role of Sweeney. Mrs Lovett, who sells “the worst pies in London”, is Sweeney’s counterpoint in every way. As much as Mingay’s Sweeny is silent and sinister, Halloran’s Mrs Lovett is funny, exuberant, flirtatious and opportunistic. Halloran’s voice is glorious, and her comic business is adorable. Her energy drives the show. Seeing the opportunity to improve her pie shop, she suggests the macabre idea of turning the customers into meat. She makes black-comic puns about each of the professions that could go into her pies – “Have a little priest… Sir, it’s too good, at least! Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh, so it’s pretty fresh”.

As we expect from folk stories, besides the hero, there are a pair of romantic leads and a couple of villains. The young romantic couple are Anthony Hope (Harry Targett), a young sailor who arrived back in London on the same ship as Sweeney Todd, and Joanna (Ashleigh Rubenach), Sweeney’s beautiful daughter. They are both sweet, well intentioned and pure. Joanna is now Judge Turpin’s ward, and he keeps her confined to his house. The young sailor, instantly love struck, is determined to save her. Targett is terrific as the earnest romantic hero, and while Rubenach sings beautifully, her role is more constrained. Thankfully, Rubenach gets to show more of her range in the very charming duet, Kiss Me.

The two evil characters, Judge Turpin and The Beadle, depict the institutional corruption in London at the time. Kanen Breen’s mean, pompous, unctuous Beadle is truly vile. Breen’s moment in the parlour at the pianoforte was repulsive and so out of character that it is exquisitely funny. However, Judge Turpin gets no chance for light comic relief and solidly remains a villain until the end.

Jeremy Campese is delightful as Tobias Ragg, the young urchin who was first in the service of snake oil salesman, Adolfo Pirelli, entertainingly performed by Benjamin Rasheed. Later, he comes to work for Mrs Lovett and performs a moving version of one of Sondheim’s most tender and beautiful songs, Not While I’m Around.

The opening night audience loved the show. They cheered and whistled after nearly every song and gave an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end. As I made my way down to the car park, people were smiling and singing bits of the score. I was too.

Event details

Sydney Opera House presents a Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera Production
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – A Musical Thriller
music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim | Book Hugh Wheeler

Director Stuart Maunder

Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW
Dates: 22 July – 27 August 2023
Tickets: $99 – $69
Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com

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