Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

14/10/2010 - 23/10/2010

Production Details

A Musical Thriller

“A masterpiece of murderous barber-ism and culinary crime”

The date is April 1888, the place is London – and Jack the Ripper is making headlines…. And meanwhile Sweeney Todd, the unjustly exiled barber has returned to infamous  and seedy Fleet Street, seeking revenge against the corrupt and lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife…. Todd’s thirst for blood soon expands to include his unfortunate customers, with Mrs Lovett, the resourceful proprietress of the pie shop downstairs, making the most of a steady supply of fresh meat, which soon has the people of London lining up in droves for her mysterious new pie recipe!

The rare instance of a musical thriller, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s chilling, suspenseful, heart-pounding masterpeice of murderous barber-ism and culinary crime.

Sweeney Todd mixes intense drama with howlingly funny moments of dark humour.  Lust, revenge, madness and murder – all play their part in this masterful melodrama.  And at the show’s core is a challenging and sophisticated score of epic proportion with two tasty tour de force roles in Sweeney and his comic female accomplice Mrs Lovett.

Staged by Showiz Christchurch in this year of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, Sweeney Todd will be directed by Sara Brodie, with musical director Luke di Somma.  This lavish production will enthrall audiences with outstanding voices, set and costumes, to create a most memorable and thrilling musical theatre experience.


Presented by Showbiz Christchurch
14th-23rd October 2010
at the Isaac Theatre Royal


The principals are: 
SWEENEY TODD: Michael Bayly
ANTHONY HOPE: Mark Williamson
TOBIAS RAGG: Cameron Melville
MRS NELLIE LOVETT: Juliet Reynolds-Midgley
BEGGAR WOMAN (aka LUCY BARKER): Anne-Marie Cotton

Quality horror

Review by Tony Ryan 15th Oct 2010

Among its many strengths, Showbiz Christchurch’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is worth seeing for Juliet Reynolds-Midgley’s portrayal of Mrs Lovett alone. Midgley’s ability to go beyond mere portrayal of the character and to actually inhabit the role is quite remarkable.

Among a generally strong and consistent cast she stands out for the way she is able to give real personality to a rather stereotypically-drawn character. Throughout the evening we see a real and believable individual who retains her persona in a wide variety of expressive contexts, whether comic, sentimental, conniving, anxious or, at the end, terrified. Her voice, mannerisms, responses to other characters and situations, and sudden changes of mood are endlessly entertaining and, at times, grippingly dynamic. Sondheim has given the part of Nellie Lovett his best music and Midgley uses it with consummate skill and vocal characterisation to develop and establish her character even further.

The character is also helped by Sara Brodie’s excellent production and Mark McIntyre’s wonderfully effective and fluid set. Diane Brodie’s costumes and Joe Hayes’ lighting design also contribute effectively to the director’s concept. I encountered Sara Brodie’s work last year when The Kreutzer was performed at the Christchurch Arts Festival. That production was a very imaginative and original conception in way that is not quite possible with a piece like Sweeney Todd. But last night we were given a production which made the very most of Hugh Wheeler’s and Stephen Sondheim’s particular brand of theatre.

I was thankful for a production which enabled singers and actors to develop their characters and to establish a sense of real human individuality. So often we are presented with modern productions of musicals in which performers are purged of any individuality in the interests of the director’s robotic and superficial slickness, so that even familiar pieces become productions to admire rather than works of art to move and uplift. But last night’s Sweeney Todd was about the characters and the writers’ intentions and, in consequence, the director has succeeded, in my view, so much more successfully than the production-line machines that otherwise seem to have become the order of the day.   

Among the other actors, the long-time experience of Michael Bayly’s Sweeney Todd, Peter Hewson’s Beadle Bamford and Ravil Atlas’s Judge Turpin also brought rounded personalities and consistent characterisations.

The younger members of the cast demonstrated commitment and polish without quite the imagination and personal touches evident in the performances of those more experienced names. Perhaps that is partly the fault of Sondheim and Wheeler themselves. The characters have a tendency towards music hall stereotypes, a factor that may be an open and welcome invitation to an actor of talent and skill, but a problem for anyone hoping to find the characterisation written into the part.

In that sense, I may not be the ideal Sondheim reviewer because, while his admirers are certainly many, his work has never totally convinced me – and it’s not for want of trying. This is the third fully-staged, ‘professional’ production of Sweeney Todd that I’ve seen, and over the years I’ve attended equally polished performances of Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Side By Side By Sondheim (a sort of mid-career review) and Passion (during its opening week in New York in 1994). But I’ve always found the inspiration uneven, the substance rather thin and the musical devices contrived and clever rather than spontaneous and original. However, I’m happy to confess to huge admiration for his endlessly inventive and witty lyrics. 

But Sweeney Todd certainly has some very special and engaging highlights when presented as superbly as they were in this production. Mrs Lovett’s The Worst Pies in London lifted the opening scenes of the show beyond the dated melodrama of the Prologue, and A Little Priest, also a highlight of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s recent Bernstein/Sondheim concert, is a song, both for its words and its lyrics, of undeniable inspiration. And that inspiration was reinforced by the most thoroughly conceived staging that one could wish for – a moment when the spirits were truly lifted despite the abrupt introduction of the plot’s grisly subject-matter.

The Pirelli scene in Act 1, lead with versatility by Blair McHugh, was another highlight, and Act 2’s By the Sea was heart-warmingly engaging. The singing and movement of the ensemble were also handled impressively, although the amplified sound had an edginess that was sometimes rather wearing on the ear; this also applied to certain aspects of the solo singing and seemed to be the one element of the show that aimed for brick-wall impact rather than expressive communication. 

As the story reaches its combined – and therefore dramatically confused – climax and dénouement at the end of the show, we are presented by the writers with more deaths than the final scene of Hamlet, with horror piled on horror in a way that detracts from the humanity of the plot. No longer are we dealing with tyranny, corruption, injustice, revenge, love, jealousy; we are simply being shocked by any and every new horror that the authors can dream up. And, whereas the horrific finales of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, etc. are genuinely tragic, heartrending, moving and, in the end, spiritually uplifting and bursting with humanity, Sweeney Todd’s ending is merely melodramatic and designed to hit us with the impact of a sledgehammer.

Musical Director Luke di Somma’s programme note draws musical comparisons with Stravinsky, Verdi, Brahms and Wagner, which is stretching things beyond credibility. While Sweeney Todd certainly has glimpses of the “power, humour, beauty, darkness and sophistication” that di Somma mentions, it certainly has none of those composers’ subtlety, richness or depth. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great aficionado of the Broadway Musical, but let’s not demean it by pretending that it’s trying to be something else. However, Luke di Somma very clearly has a deep knowledge of and affection for the genre of the Musical, and the musical quality of the performance that I saw, both on stage and in the pit, was very fine and very secure indeed. 

Fans of Musical Comedy, Stephen Sondheim, Victorian melodrama, horror stories, or a night of quality singing, acting and theatre need not hesitate; this production has many strengths and those strengths certainly deliver.
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Luke Di Somma October 16th, 2010

I appreciate  and respect Mr Ryan's positive review. I would have still respected a negative review - I am a staunch believer in the role and independence of the critic.

However, I have to say I was suprised that Mr Ryan spent a paragraph critiquing my programme notes. Again I respect his opinion and his right to disagree, but not only was I amused that he would rather take issue with my notes than talk more about how we performed the music, or even about the music itself, but he is wrong to say that I 'compared' the score of Sweeney Todd to those aforementioned classical composers.

My point was that the influence of these composers can be felt in the score. Sondheim was and is an avid classical musician (in both training and taste) and while his scores may not, in Mr Ryan's opinion, match the 'richness or depth' of Brahms or Stravinsky, the score has considerably more depth and richness than most Broadway musicals. And I never said the score was Wagnerian - I said he uses leitmotifs in a similar way; which he does. I would also point out that Sweeney Todd is regularly performed by opera companies around the world, and is regarded as one of the few music theatre works which exists in any musical theatre/opera crossover.

Underneath Mr Ryan's comments that I was "demean(ing) it by pretending that it’s trying to be something else" I detect a slight assumption about what sort of music should be in a musical theatre score. I wish not to put thoughts or words into Mr Ryan's brain or mouth, but musical theatre has moved on from the 'boom chuck boom chuck' two feel 32 bar song, or the gentle romantic ballad or the big brassy show stoppers that have dominated and become associated with the form.

One of the major developments of the Broadway musical in the last decade is the increasingly large role of new musical styles - pop, rock, hip hop, R and B, latino music and contemporary classical music are just some styles which are now frequently in Broadway and Off Broadway scores. Musical theatre's biggest threat is the cliched imagery that goes along with it - cheesy music and jazz hands are the reason a lot of people's eyes glaze over when the word 'musical' is mentioned, and why musicals often struggle to get a new generation of audiences along.

I don't think Messrs Sondheim and Wheeler, who wrote Sweeney Todd would think that such comparisons or associations were demeaning to what they were trying to achieve. They weren't trying to write a stock Broadway musical; they were writing a gory gothic musical thriller, the first of its kind and one of the few genuinely tragic musicals. This is a show  which unquestionably breaks convention, and it's score is an integral part of that invention. It may be pretty tonal and not particularly thrilling from a classical standpoint, but compared with what most other musicals offer in terms of musical excitement, Sweeney Todd is in a class of it's own.

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