Venue: Stirling Community Theatre, Stirling
Season: 8pm Thurs to Sat to 26th November, 5pm Sun 20th Nov 2011
Duration: 3hrs incl interval
Tickets: adult $27/conc $24/children $17
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or http://www.bass.net.au or Matilda Bookshop 8339 3931 or http://www.sct.org.au/hmc/bookings.shtml
Stephen Sondheim had a huge hit with Sweeney Todd and it has been performed regularly by both professional and amateur companies ever since. State Opera have presented it twice, and numerous amateur groups around Adelaide have tackled it. Both the orchestral music and the vocal writing are fiendishly difficult, so good amateur productions are rare. This production, however, is exceptional.
The story is well known, with Benjamin Barker, a London barber, having been wrongfully convicted and deported to Australia by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who desired Barker's pretty young wife. Having raped her, Turpin discarded her but, perhaps out of contrition, adopted the Barkers' baby daughter as his ward. Barker has made his way home after fifteen years, and seeks revenge, adopting the name Sweeney Todd to avoid recognition. He returns to his barber shop and falls in league with his past landlady, who now runs an unsuccessful pie shop. He then begins his serial killing spree, while she fills her pies with his victims.
Musical director, Mark DeLaine, has one of the finest pit orchestras one could wish for, with superb playing from start to finish. He has also rehearsed the chorus very well and they make the difficult harmonies seem almost easy. And then there are the soloists, and what a marvellous group they are. Singing is only half of the performance and Director, Hayley Horton, took care of the other side of the production, the acting and staging. She obviously made sure that her cast were able to act just as well as they could sing, with a whole batch of great characterisations and performances.
Rod Schultz does not just play Sweeney Todd, he is Todd. Her commands the stage whenever he appears, wonderfully sinister, smouldering with hate and lusting for revenge. It is all there is his performance and in his singing, with a hint of underlying pain and a deadness in his soul. His is a masterful interpretation.
Fiona DeLaine is his co-conspirator Mrs. Lovett, offering another terrific performance. She gives such a realistic characterisation as the dirty and dishevelled pie maker that you cringe when Todd bites into one, even though you know that it was really made by Villis.
They not only act and sing the roles brilliantly, and generate a great rapport between them, but they carry it through to every little glance, move, gesture and facial expression.
With two such strong leads, on top of the fine work with the orchestra and chorus, this production was off to a winning start, but it did not stop there. The high standard was maintained right through all of the secondary roles, too.
Joel Valenti makes his Judge Turpin a stern and self-important bigot, hard as nails, greedy and filled with lust. He deviously spins his webs but fails to see that another, far more dangerous predator is closing in on him. As his assistant, Beadle Bamford, Jamie Jewell creates a character oilier than Exxon. He is as smarmy as you could wish in the role and a terrific accomplice to the Judge in his machinations.
Eden Plaisted is wonderfully flamboyant as Pirelli, giving up a braggart and a charlatan that you cannot help but love. Fahad Farooque, who is Pirelli's assistant, presents a nicely naïve Tobias Ragg, simple, honest and devoted to Mr. Lovett which is, of course, his eventual downfall. The relationship he builds between his character and Mrs. lovett has a gentleness that gives nice relief to the evil around him in the pie shop.
Belinda Smith, as Johanna, and David Simmons, as Anthony, are the two young lovers who run into a myriad barriers to being together, with the Judge deciding to marry Johanna himself, Todd wanting his daughter back, but not wanting Anthony around, and the Beadle keeping an eye on both of them. They go beyond the usual flat interpretations and fill out their characters well, showing some convincing growth between their early encounter and first rush of desire, and later, when Anthony rescues Johanna from the madhouse.
Jamie Richards plays Jonas Fogg, the keeper of the madhouse, giving good account of himself in this small but important role. He gives a characterisations that suggests that Fogg is quite possibly the maddest person in the madhouse.
And then there is Michelle Nightingale, concealing her youth and good looks beneath a heap of rags, a tatty straw hat and make-up in a sensational performance as the Beggar woman. Her switches between moments of coherence and madness are beautifully portrayed.
Hayley Horton and Malcolm Horton designed the set which, thanks to John Dempsey's construction, and careful painting by a veritable platoon of helpers, is both striking and incredibly detailed. Jamie Jewell designed and made the costumes, with the help of Stuart McGhee, and they are so eye-catching and elaborate that one cannot help but wonder how he also found time to learn his role. The lighting design, by Ian Barge, plays a most important part in establishing the mood for this production, and moody it is indeed. The only minor problem is that voices, once in a while, were lost below the music, which suggests that the sound technician might be poorly positioned to hear the balance or, as often happens, is using headphones and not listening to what the audience is actually hearing.
If you love Sondheim and Sweeney Todd, and even if you do not, you will not want to miss this outstanding production but, as I keep warning people in vain, book now before the word gets around and the tickets all go.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.