REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (NZ Opera)

Review by James Wenley

Antoinette Halloran and Teddy Tahu Rhodes

[Fleet Street Clean Sweep]

While he has never stayed in one place for all that long, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, first seen in 1979, has continued to set up his establishment in production after production world-wide. Written by Hugh Wheeler with music and lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, it has attracted headliners like Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammar, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Michael Ball, Imelda Staunton, and Emma Thompson. There was that Johnny Depp film, whose trailers notoriously tried to do a bait-and-switch and hide that it was a musical, which in the final analysis was more Tim Burton’s Sweeney than it was Sondheim’s. Auckland’s last professional Sweeney shave was Jesse Peach’s uneven production in the Maidment in 2010.

In London and now off-Broadway, its being used to lead the charge in a new twist on the form: the immersive musical. Audiences will see the show in a working pie shop. Yum?

At the completely opposite end of the scale, Sweeney has been canonised by Opera companies, adding it to their modern repertoire.

NZ Opera’s version, directed by Artistic Director Stuart Maunder, is a co-production with Victoria Opera and debuted with many of the same trans-Tasman leads in Melbourne last year. The company have been rather upfront about using Sweeney to attract a broader audience who might not consider themselves opera goers. It’s a canny choice. Sondheim describes the show in his book Finishing the Hat as a “black operetta”, and its malleable for both musical theatre and opera forms. It’s a revelation to hear the show with these voices.

When Teddy Tahu Rhodes make his entrance, one is immediately struck by how colossally imposing he is. A Sweeney crossed with Batman villain Bane, he hardly needs his precious razor blades, you feel he could just crush someone’s skull if he wanted to. If you don’t know the backstory, he was separated from his wife and child by the corrupt Judge Turpin, and packed off to Australia. Now he’s back, after revenge. Countering his physical presence, Rhodes is quite a subtle Sweeney, slow to action, whose resentment boils under the surface. His commanding bass is tortured, dark, and dangerous.

The trade-off in having his sublime operatic sound is that the lyrics often get lost along the way. This doesn’t matter in traditional opera with its foreign languages and surtitles, but this is Sondheim we’re talking about.

It means that the balance of the show is shifted even more to pie shop owner Mrs Lovett, played with a supreme handle on Sondheim’s dense and demanding text by Antoinette Halloran, who becomes the de-facto protagonist in this version. This is no bad thing, let’s rename it The Demon Baker of Fleet Street and be done with it. Halloran’s Mrs Lovett is wonderfully conniving, and doesn’t let any opportunity pass to give a ‘come on’ to Mr Todd.

While the love subplot between Johanna (Amelia Berry) and Anthony (James Benjamin Rodgers) is largely functional in the show (a flaw in this masterpiece), Berry especially makes her stage-time count in her damaged treatment of the character. Their increasingly frantic ‘Kiss Me’ becomes an unexpected but welcome highlight, in a score that has so many outstanding character-song moments. There’s nothing quite like the triple hit of ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Epiphany’ and the rhyme and pun tour-de-force ‘A Little Priest’ to round off Act One. It is Sondheim at his most macabre and brazen.

Robert Tucker’s rival barber Pirelli is played especially as a spoof of Italian opera pretentiousness. Helen Medlyn again shows why she is one of our best with her spirited and sexually sly portrayal of the tragic beggar woman. Judge Turpin (Phillip Rhodes), Beadle Bamford (Andrew Glover) and Tobias (Joel Grainger) also put in impeccable turns.

What’s special about the NZ Opera version is how much of the black humour they’ve been able to wring from the text. The other feature is their take on the Sweeney/Lovett relationship. Most Sweeney’s play this with some indifference, but the chemistry of this pairing is attractive, and Sweeney’s willing to get distracted.

The production values are excellent. We are in extremely good hands all round. It’s a giant step up in quality from the some of the recent local musical productions that have played at the Civic.

I welcome NZ Opera’s entry into the Musical Theatre realm (an international trend). As far as I’m concerned, they should keep raiding Sondheim’s back catalogue (as Opera Victoria did, with a Sondheim trilogy over three years). Imagine their Into The Woods, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies

Our appetites have been whetted…

Sweeney Todd is presented by NZ Opera and plays at The Civic until 18 Sept. Details see Auckland Live

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