Friday, October 13, 2017

SWEENEY TODD - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Richard Block. Musical direction by Leonard Weiss. Choreography by Caitlin Schilg. Dramatic Productions. Gungahlin College. October 7 – 21, 2017. Bookings: 62531454

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


It takes a bold director and an even bolder musical director to take on a Sondheim musical. And if that musical is the dark and sinister Sweeney Todd, it’s a Matterhorn of musical theatre to climb. Dramatic Productions, under the direction of Richard Block and musical direction of Leonard Weiss and with the choreography of Caitlin Schilg have scaled the summit with this carefully staged production.  Attempts have been made within a spare budget to capture the atmosphere of Victorian England in Thompson Quan Wing’s set design with its various levels that serve to separate Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop from Judge Turpin’s house, Sweeney’s upstairs barber shop and the Insane Asylum. The bone grinding flesh mincing bakehouse reaps the desired effect of conjuring grand guinol horror and Block directs the staging with clarity and fluidity. Schilg’s choreography lends particular flair to the inmates of the asylum.

I have attended a mid week performance of Sweeny Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It is an understudy night with Kate O’Sullivan playing a very lively and convincing Mrs. Lovitt and Emily Mullamphy as the young ward of the malicious, corrupt and lascivious judge (Max Gambale). Mullamphy is well matched with the young love interst, Anthony (Lachlan Agett), although many of her spoken lines and sung lyrics were lost. An Understudy’s lot is not always a happy one.

From Sondheim’s opening ballad, the scene is set with fine singing from the company.  We learn of the sorry and unjust fate of Benjamin Barker, separated from his wife and young daughter by the evil Judge and doomed to live out fifteen miserable years in far flung Australia. In No Place Like London, he return to a city, infested with vermin, human and otherwise with one purpose to wreak revenge upon the judge and his snivelling, slimy Beadle (Joseph MGrail-Bateup) With the help of Mrs. Lovitt, he returns to his trade and rids the town of Londoners by despatching them to a fate of pie-fillings. This is classic, Gothic horror with a splash of grim irony. Victorian melodrama splattered with dollops of melodic dissonance, grates and rasps with the slash of Sweeney’s razor of revenge. No good can come of self administered justice and though evil will out and the villains rightly damned, the price is retribution and a Shakespearian assembly of bodies brings this terrible tale to its inevitable conclusion. Love may triumph but that’s small comfort for a happy ending.

The ultimate success of a Sondheim musical must rest with the casting and the orchestration. Dramatic Productions triumphs. Performances of the principals are uniformly strong and the Ensemble master the difficult dissonance of Sondheim’s composition and the tricky unity of lyrics and operatic score. As Sweeney, David Pearson creates a tormented, demonized victim of injustice , transformed into a psychopathic murderer, indiscriminate in his serial murders and riven by one solitary resolve, the death of the judge. Possessed and obsessed, Todd is dehumanized, animal in his lustful ambition, and Pearson towers as the demon of Fleet Street. His rich baritone echoes with pain and singleminded purpose. His character is operatic, and one might say wooden, but Frankenstein’s monster dwells within a performance that is both chilling and maniacal. He is well supported by Gambale’s evil judge, and Bateup’s slimy Beadle. Their swift and bloody despatch leaves no tear to mourn. There is excellent work also from Liam Jackson’s unfortunate urchin, Tobias Ragg, whose Not While I’m Around echoed with the pathos of his ironic fate. Block ‘s direction captures the essence of story’s Victorian origins and  dark misfortune of the age. The result is an absorbing, at times gripping and entertaining production of Sondheim’s morality musical .

A song list reveals numbers that I had forgotten. Johanna and  Not While I’m Around are quickly recalled but I was particularly impressed by Pearson’s rendition of Epiphany, Gambale and Pearson’s duet, Pretty Women and O’Sullivan and Pearson’s  By The Sea, staged with colourful flair and joyful choreography.

If you are a south-sider or an inner Norther, then it is well worth making the trip to the Gungahlin College Theatre to see  such an “enjoyable”, entertaining and somewhat terrifying production of a classic Sondheim musical,  rarely performed in Canberra.