It is 19 years since State Opera last staged Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and that was a memorable production by Gale Edwards that was hard to fault. This time, however, under Stuart Maunder’s direction, the company has come up with something genuinely riveting. As the characters creep out of the gloom of a grimy, Dickensian-looking London underworld to tell the tale of the demonic barber of Fleet Street, one quickly realises that we are in for an utterly gripping night of musical theatre.
The first piece of advice is to forget Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 2007 film version of the musical. Ben Mingay easily surpasses him both as actor and (of course) as singer. This former construction worker from Newcastle began his meteoric singing career when workmates challenged him to audition for the Sydney Conservatorium, and he carries the shoes of Sweeney Todd with far greater solidity. His voice is thunderous, and his revenge over Judge Turpin’s evildoings feels authentic.
As he learns how the judge has destroyed his family, he stands firm and stares into the distance with an air of almost philosophical resolve. Only at that point do we realise we are empathising with a homicidal maniac.
But the cleverest part of this production happens when, during his rant and descent into lunacy, Todd steps forward and directly addresses the audience with his bloodcurdling oath of vengeance against the world. As an audience, we are no longer allowed to be mere onlookers: either as victims or as perpetrators, “we all deserve to die”, he swears.
For his part, Judge Turpin is played with shameless avarice by Douglas McNicol, whose deeply resonant bass register is just as magnificent as Mingay’s. What a couple of tremendous adversaries they make. McNicol, incidentally, took this role back in 2002, and he really knows how to dish it up.
Around them is a panoply of “normal” characters who are amusingly drawn as caricatures. The half-mad beggar woman who falls victim to Todd’s razor before he learns she is his wife is brilliantly performed by Joanna McWaters, while Mat Verevis produces buckets of laughter as Tobias Ragg, a numbskull apprentice barber turned pie-maker who ends up slitting Todd’s throat in his own act of retaliation.
Another wonderful clown is Mark Oates as Turpin’s assistant, Beadle Bamford: his parlour songs on the organ with his knees gyrating on the pedals are hilarious. Also amusing are Adam Goodburn as Pirelli, Todd’s rival barber, and the young couple of Desiree Frahn as Todd’s daughter Johanna and her moonstruck beau, Anthony Hope, sung by Nicholas Cannon. They all supply excellent scenes.
The only character who is slightly puzzling is Mrs Lovett. Concocting a scheme to feed her ovens with corpses that tumble down the chute from Todd’s barber shop, she is an all-smiling, slightly manic presence throughout the musical. Antoinette Halloran takes the role with great skill and theatrical timing, but we discover little about Lovett’s motives other than the fact that she is a pure opportunist. It’s probably a weakness in the musical itself.
Like the ghostly shades in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and with unerring vocal precision, the choruses are just fabulous. Anthony Hunt has drilled them magnificently as conductor, and he drives the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with a propulsive force that never lets up.
Sondheim’s music is terrific, and despite all the carnage one feels elated by the end. The whole production is so well done that you want to keep coming back for more. This is a show not to miss.
Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim, is being presented by State Opera South Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 15.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.