Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most intimidating and musically complex creation, and, last night at Her Majesty's Theatre, the long-starved theatre goers of Adelaide were hungry for it. Sitting in this glorious space, it's easy to forget it is more than merely the recipient of a fresh paint job and some nice upholstery. I had to be reminded by a good friend that this is a brand-new theatre, that has somehow retained the spirit and feel of the original. It is stunning. As remarked upon by the loyal opera patron seated next to me, this bold programming choice is a stroke of genius by the State Opera of South Australia, as evidenced by the varied age demographic of the audience, not to mention the healthy number in attendance. There was a lot to admire about this production and it is nothing short of a thrill to experience live theatre again, even if a few ingredients were a little undercooked.
(NB: I won’t be explaining the plot here. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t know it, you should see it.)
Visually, Stuart Maunder’s dark and grungy production is an aesthetic feast. The set has seemingly countless entry and exit points through which the members of the chorus can slither on and off. The lighting is simple yet effective, sometimes dimly evoking the slimy London streets, and at other times bathing the space in blood-red hues, adding further impact to our anti-hero’s murderous enterprise.
While the casting of the main roles is a little hit and miss, there is no denying that Ben Mingay’s demon barber is something to behold. An intimidating force that surges with fierce momentum with every step, every flick of his wrist and swing of his arm explodes with the fury and volatility of a man on the brink of madness. His ‘Epiphany’ left me teary and breathless. His chemistry with Antoinette Halloran (the impeccably unhinged, if a little too vocally imprecise Mrs Lovett) is undeniable; the show soared in their moments of playful interaction in ‘A Little Priest’ and ‘By the Sea.’
Many of the supporting players did some exquisite work in bringing to life some fully realised and well-drawn performances of three-dimensional characters with limited stage time. Of note were Adam Goodburn as the slippery, hilarious and possibly Italian Mr Pirelli, Mark Oates as the suitably sinister Beadle Bamford, who can’t quite resist a harmonium sing-along, and Joanna McWaters as The Beggar Woman, a deeply affecting and deceptively layered performance.
Musically, it would be hard to find a feat of composition in the musical theatre canon of a more fiendishly difficult and unrelenting nature as Sweeney; it requires singers and musicians (no, there is not a distinction there – you know exactly what I mean) at the top of their game. While it ultimately sits more comfortably in music theatre, it masterfully straddles the line between MT and opera, often within the same song. The sheer vocal power of the State Opera singers is exactly what’s demanded, although some did seem to struggle to keep up with the more neurotic, patter-driven songs. Under Anthony Hunt’s baton, the condensed pit version of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra made short work of the score’s twisting, labyrinthine turns (interestingly, they felt more at home here than they did in the world of Carousel a couple of short months ago). Some instances of uncertain tempi seemed to create some moments of tension and unclear diction on stage, but nothing that wasn’t quickly resolved by these professionals. A few unfortunate sound issues plagued Wednesday night’s performance, including some missed mic cues and inconsistent levels of pre-recorded sound. Even though the score calls for an ear-piercing factory whistle several times, I refuse to believe it was intended to be *that* loud. My ears are still ringing.
By some margin, the runaway MVP of this production is the chorus. Seamlessly pivoting between different roles, often in front of the audience’s very eyes, the ensemble was simply top shelf in every sense. They demolished the unreasonably complex vocal demands in the way I might demolish an actual pie (with reckless abandon). I spent much of ‘God, That’s Good!’ in genuine awe of how multiple humans could sing such perilous syncopation with so much synchronisation. The State Opera Chorus is the element of this production that feels the most fully integrated. I have the utmost respect for these singers; we are so lucky to have them in Adelaide.
One of the most hotly anticipated aspect of any iteration of Sweeney is how it will handle the dramatic logistics of disposing of the bodies in real time. Without giving anything away, this production does not disappoint. I’m struggling to remember the last time I heard audible cheers immediately following a gruesome murder. I was also stunned to realise how many audience members were clearly not familiar with the rug-pull aspects of the plot (poor things). I can only imagine how much of a thrill it must have been to go in blind and experience Sweeney for the first time in 2021. If this is you, please try to attend the tale this week before it closes. They’ll serve anyone. At all.
Sweeney Todd is playing at Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide until Saturday 15 May, 2021.