Review / Ambitious ‘Sweeney’ misses a little polish

Musical theatre / “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Richard Block. Gungahlin College Theatre until October 21. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

Baritone David Pearson in the title role of “Sweeney Todd”.

PERHAPS it was the unsettling delay caused by an intransigent booking system that delayed the opening-night performance until 8.30pm, but Dramatic Productions’ ambitious production of “Sweeney Todd”, didn’t display the confidence in direction of its first Sondheim musical, “Into the Wood”, in 2015.

“Sweeney Todd” demands a production of operatic proportions and, in many ways, this production achieves that. Particularly admirable is the excellent orchestra, under the direction of Leonard Weiss, which did full justice to the complex Sondheim score, only occasionally threatening to overwhelm the singing from the large ensemble.

There is also excellent singing from the well-cast principals, especially from David Pearson, impressively heading the strong cast as the murderous barber, Sweeney Todd, determined to take revenge on those who wrongly imprisoned him. Pearson’s fine portrayal achieves exactly the right mood with his unnervingly lifeless speaking voice, measured delivery, fine presence and excellent singing.

Although she looked much too young and healthy to convince as a work-worn, pie-shop owner in plague-ridden, 19th century London (wigs and make-up should have corrected this), Meaghan Stewart turns in a show-stealing performance as Mrs Lovett. Her vocal delivery, strong singing voice, excellent diction and intuitive comic acting are pure joy, especially her solo, “Worst Pies in London” and her duet with Todd, “Epiphany”, and mark her as a young performer to watch.

Demi Smith as Todd’s lost daughter Johanna impressed with her pure, high soprano, easily negotiating the difficult “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, but her frenetic acting style resulted in a surprisingly charmless characterisation. Similarly, Liam Jackson, who impressed earlier in the show with his singing and acting as Tobias Ragg, only to destroy the gentle “Not While I’m Around” with his overt histrionics.

Max Gambale brought a fine singing voice and excellent acting to his role as the venal Judge Turpin. A pity, therefore, that we didn’t get to see his interpretation of “The Flagellation Song” that, in line with some versions, was omitted from this production.

Joseph McGrail-Bateup as Beadle Bamford, Bradley McDowell as Adolfo Pirelli and Sian Harrington as the beggar woman all offered good characterisations, as did Lachlan Agett as Joanna’s love interest, Anthony Hope, although he seemed much less comfortable with the singing.

Caitlin Schilg has devised some excellent group movement for the ensemble scenes, however her misguided staging of “By The Sea” would surely have been more appropriate for a production of “The Boyfriend”. And while Thompson Quan Wing’s set design generally worked quite well, the all-important barber’s chair was disappointing, resulting in laughter at the clumsily staged murder scenes rather than horror.

But, although the opening night of “Sweeney Todd” did not achieve the polish we have come to expect from Dramatic Productions, there is still much to admire in this ambitious production, which provides an unmissable opportunity to experience the brilliance of one musical theatre’s most celebrated composers.

 

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