26
Mar
12

sweeney todd

Josh Rowe (Sweeney Todd)

Sweeney Todd

Ignatians Musical Society

Schonell Theatre

22nd March – 13th April

Ignatians sure know how to put on a show. And boy oh boy have they picked a doozy this time! Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, inspired by Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the classic story (Bond was the first to show Todd as a man who had been wronged by the law and not motivated entirely by greed), is certainly not the easiest of musical productions. In fact, it could be considered one of the most challenging, with its complex orchestrations, multi-layered ensemble work and dark, difficult story to sell to contemporary audiences with ever-decreasing attention spans, accustomed to being sitcom-spoon-fed.

Director and Musical Director, John Peek, has accomplished something special with this Sweeney Todd. A strong, bold ensemble, filled to overflowing with top-notch part-singers and character actors, a brave creative team, an orchestra fit for a recording studio (led by Conductor, Edgar Chan) and a cast of leading players who include a couple of Brisbane’s best.

Opera singer, Josh Rowe, despite his Russell Crow demeanor (or maybe because of it. Russell Crowe was to have originally starred in the film and was to have been directed by Sam Mendes. Personally, I’m okay with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton having scored the gig), was a little underwhelming on Saturday night (the third performance of the run). Rowe may have the title role but this is Miranda Selwood’s show. Their relationship becomes more interesting and Rowe’s reactions and expressions become more animated in Act 2, by which time I felt he’d really settled into his boots (I don’t mean vocally – the outstanding vocals were there from the outset, exemplified in the sinister song, My Friends, sung to his razor (singular, yes), glinting in the light – I mean that he must have gone out and got his Sweeney shoes on at interval, only fully exploring the range of the character later. I should make mention of Pretty Women; sung with Judge Turpin (Chris Kellett), it used the right mix from both men, of devious and delighted and By The Sea, performed with Selwood (she is an absolute scream in this number; hers is a fearless performance) is made that much more hilarious by Rowe’s facial expressions and in this well-loved song, although he remains seated, we see his ability as an actor start to come through, in addition to the stand-and-deliver-singer we’ve seen thus far). It’s Selwood who is simply superb, as the bustling, busybody, bonny cook of The Worst Pies in London, Mrs Lovett. She is feisty, cheeky, fast, furious and vocally, absolutely glorious. She clearly relishes the role and why not? It’s a plum one and it seems she was born to play it. I’m sure Selwood must have taken a leaf out of Helena Bonham Carter’s book and practiced her baking whilst practicing her singing, in order to perfect the syncopation in her songs, which are surely the most difficult of the show.

James Gauci is also perfectly cast, as the young, romantic lead. He’s a good-looking lad who can hold a note and tell a tale…oh, who am I kidding? He’s just gorgeous and he sings to sweep the ladies off their feet! Please somebody get him in front of Frosty already! His Johanna, Jordana Peek, is suitably lovely – a picture of innocence – though I found her a little pitchy and breathy in the song that should seal the deal for this character, Green Finch and Linnet Bird. She made up for it in the duet with Gauci, Kiss Me, and also, in the Reprise of Kiss Me (the Quartet), demonstrating the confidence we expected to see from the start and a much more polished performance, finally winning me over. Toby (Ben Hickey) is a tough-nut sweetheart and does a truly beautiful job of the often over-sung Not While I’m Around. We expect this to be a poignant moment (it’s the beauty before the full extent of the horror) between Toby and Mrs Lovett and we’re not disappointed. Pirelli (Andrew Scheiwe), whose accents are spot on and Lucy Barker (Sarah Jensen), who manages to make us laugh as well as make our hearts break in the very same instant, get the other honorable mentions, giving us wonderful, multi-faceted characters.

James Gauci (Anthony) and Ben Hickey (Toby)

James Gauci (Anthony), Jordana Peek (Johanna) and Chris Kellet (Judge Turpin)

It’s a highly technical show and there are massive demands placed on the set. This design (Shane Rodwell) is intricate in terms of its levels but there is something at odds here and I feel sure it’s the massive, mechanical revolve trying to upstage everybody. So much emphasis has been placed on the working set that we are lucky to have had such strong performances, avoiding anyone paling into insignificance. I love a revolve as much as anybody but it must serve the purpose and I felt that this one – it was clunky and slow – was out of step with the pace of the show. The Chair, however, is another matter altogether; the mechanism is brilliant and the effect is truly chilling and strangely comical, as things tend to be when they are mildly discomforting… I don’t want to give away all of the effects but if you’ve ever seen a squib sliced, you’ll appreciate that somebody in makeup has done their fair share of research into the fine art of throat slitting. You will squirm, just as you should. The tale is, after all, ghastly.

Dark, gothic lighting – not too much and not too little – casting shadows and drawing our eyes towards the most minimal action is just right. Andrew ‘Panda’ Haden has done well to achieve such an evocative and intimate lighting design within the large-scale Schonell Theatre. Gutter colours dominate the structures and the costumes, all trash and no treasure, except for Pirelli’s carnival suit (but he’s not around for long), Johanna’s pretty blue frock and Mrs Lovettt’s sassy petticoat of delicious pink under, which we catch glimpses of, just as we see the brighter shades of each character from time to time – but only for a moment.

The staging of the prologue seems unnecessary, an anti-climatic opening; a solitary figure (a dishevelled man) crossing the apron of the stage to pull a rope, in the action of ringing a bell and at the same time, opening the curtain onto a scene of madness – the streets of London. A bold directorial choice, it was probably not ideal. Far more effective would be the first sounds of Sondheim’s strangely seductive score and the curtain opening upon the ensemble standing, imploring us (really very At the End of the Day and there’s no doubt it works), to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”…

Another unusual moment, wasted; we missed, “At last, my right arm is complete again!” It’s the definitive Demon Barber character line and it was thrown to the wings, dismissed during an exit, rather than used to achieve the climax of the Prologue. Whether by actor or director, I thought this an odd choice.

"At last, my right arm is complete again!" Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's film.

I cannot stress enough how good this company is in terms of their ensemble singing. Like any company, they have their “stars”, though none seem aligned or affiliated with this or another company, we see them everywhere, and Ignatians always work really hard on producing an exceptional ensemble, as we saw (heard) in RENT and as we see (and hear) in Sweeney Todd. I’m always in awe of a good choir master/MD (our local Oriana Choir is off on their European tour soon, led by the extremely capable and super confident Daniel Calder) and if you’ve ever considered joining a terrific no-pressure-no-audition choir, Ignatians provides another Brisbane option. Check the website for details.

As far as Brisbane theatre goes, there is a huge amount on at the moment and this production must be one of the hot ticket items. On Saturday night, I noticed UQ uni life was alive and well (clearly, it was pizza and red wine night) and a horde of younger audience members filled the Schonell theatre foyer at least 20 minutes before the Box Office opened. These are some keen kids! How wonderful that the theatre rather than the cinema is where they choose to spend some of their money! I would not recommend taking children to see this show. I would wonder at its appeal for those to whom Sondheim’s score is largely unknown and at the same time, I would encourage all and sundry to go see Peek’s Sweeney Todd and support Ignatians’ mammoth effort and their solid commitment to the growth of the Brisbane musical theatre scene. Really, you’d be silly to miss this production – there’s too much to like about it!

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