Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Victorian Opera 2015 - Sweeney Todd © Jeff Busby review main‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd’, the final instalment in Victorian Opera’s Sondheim trilogy, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street currently playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, can demonstrate what can be achieved with a wonderful cast, attention to detail and a budget to match.

The 1979 ‘musical thriller’ by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book), and based on 1973 melodrama of the same name by Christopher Bond, it follows the tale of English barber, Benjamin Barker (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) as he returns to London under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd, following a wrongful conviction and transportation to an Australian penal colony fifteen years earlier.

He sets up a barber shop with pie maker Mrs Lovett (Antoinette Halloran) and learns that his wife Lucy was raped by Judge Turpin (Philip Rhodes) – the same corrupt judge who convicted him on trumped up charges – after which she allegedly commits suicide. He also learns that his now teenaged daughter Johanna (Amelia Berry) is being raised by Turpin as his ward.

Full of rage, Sweeney uses his position as barber to slit the throats of all who have wronged him, namely Turpin and his associate Beadle Bamford (Kanen Breen), and prompted by Mrs Lovett, his victims become fresh ingredients for her pies which boost sales – leading to a series of tragic conclusions.

Under Stuart Maunder’s assured direction, Sweeney Todd looks and feels complete, faring significantly better than his previous Sondheim productions of Sunday in the Park with George (2013) and Into the Woods (2014) – thankfully in part to the invest from this New Zealand Opera co-production.

Maunder makes great use of Roger Kirks stunning design consisting of a series of multi-level timber stairs and brick pylons to reflect the oppressive world of 19 century London, complimented by a rotating two-level unit that housed everything from Todd’s upstairs barbershop to Lovett’s pie emporium, and Philip Lethlean’s imaginative and effective lighting design.

Rhodes  looks and sings the part, though doesn’t quite find the psychological acuity needed to really make clear the bitter complexity at Todd’s heart. Halloran is an excellent foil, finding a perfect balance between skittish madwoman, ruthless opportunist, and lonely widow. Her vocals are spot on as well, as are those of Blake Bowden’s Anthony Hope, the young sailor who falls for Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna.

After a slightly hesitant start, Amelia Berry’s Johanna develops into a finely developed performance, Kanen Breen is deliciously villainous as The Beadle and Ross Hannaford’s Tobias Ragg offers a haunting rendition of Not While I’m Around.

Relying heavily on counterpoint and rich, angular harmonies, Sondheim’s score is one of his most complex, with orchestrations by long-time collaborator Jonathan Tunick, the twelve-piece ensemble under the baton of Phoebe Briggs does it justice. Special mention must also be made to the ensemble, who are undeniably strong and feature some of Australia’s finest talent.

Director: Stuart Maunder  Featured Cast: Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Antoinette Halloran, Phillip Rhodes, Kanen Breen, David Rogers-Smith, Ross Hannaford, Blake Bowden, Amelia Berry, Dimity Shepherd, Jeremy Kleeman  Ensemble: Carrie Barr, Paul Batey, Paul Biencourt, Cherie Boogaart, Danielle Calder, Daniel Carison, Ben Clark, Teresa Duddy, Jerzy Kozlowski, Noni McCallum, Sophie Viskich  Conductor: Phoebe Briggs  Set & Costume Design: Roger Kirk  Lighting Designer: Phil Lethlean  Sound Designer: Jim Atkins

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 17 July 2015 – 7.30pm (preview performance)
Season continues to 25 July 2015
Bookings: 1300 182 183 or online at: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.victorianopera.com.au for details.

Image: Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Antoinette Halloran in Sweeney Todd – photo by Jeff Busby