SWEENEY TODD The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Civic - Auckland Live, Auckland
17/09/2016 - 24/09/2016
30/09/2016 - 05/10/2016
Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
12/10/2016 - 15/10/2016
Sweeney Todd Set To Thrill
A ‘killer’ cast meets a theatrical masterpiece in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is set to play Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch from 17 September.
Sweeney Todd is a co-production between New Zealand Opera and Victorian Opera, created by Director Stuart Maunder with Tony Award winning Designer Roger Kirk and Lighting Designer Philip Lethlean. The production comes to New Zealand following a successful season in Melbourne in July 2015.
Maunder says that the urban myth of Sweeney Todd is deliciously scary; dark; sinister… and thrilling.
“In Sweeney Todd, Sondheim combines a dark, melodramatic tale with humour and wonderful music. Audiences are in for a world-class production with this very strong company led by one of New Zealand’s most successful singers Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Australian soprano Antoinette Halloran, who is revelatory in the role of Mrs Lovatt.”
“We’ve drawn on the best Kiwi singers based here and around the world for this company, including Phillip Rhodes and Amelia Berry who reprise their roles from the Melbourne season, and newcomer Joel Granger who returns home for his first professional role in New Zealand, following a busy year in Australian theatre and television.
“We’re thrilled to have James Benjamin Rodgers and Andrew Glover taking time out of their international careers to return home for this season, as well as New Zealand-based opera stalwart Robert Tucker and the magnificent Helen Medlyn who joins in the pivotal role of the Beggar Woman.
The ensemble is drawn from the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus from all three cities, offering an exciting development opportunity for those cast in the ensemble.
“We have twenty one extremely talented people taking the stage, who together will be a powerful force, delivering on all the possibilities Sondheim’s extraordinary score promises.
Featuring the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Orchestra Wellington and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, led by Christchurch Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Benjamin Northey.
The company gathers in Auckland for rehearsals late August ahead of the season premiere at The Civic on Saturday 17 September.
With just five performances in each centre, opera and theatre fans alike are urged to book quickly for the stage production the Times Age reviewed as delivering “incisive theatricality and potent musicality.”
The Civic, Auckland
St James Theatre, Wellington
30 September – 5 October
Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
Sweeney Todd - Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Mrs Lovatt - Antoinette Halloran
Anthony Hope - James Benjamin Rodgers
Johanna - Amelia Berry
Judge Turpin - Phillip Rhodes
Beadle Bamford - Andrew Glover
Beggar Woman - Helen Medlyn
Tobias Ragg - Joel Granger
Pirelli - Robert Tucker
Jonas Fogg/Ensemble - James Ioelu
Ensemble - Cameron Barclay
Ensemble - Stuart Coats
Ensemble - Declan Cudd
Ensemble - Barbara Graham
Ensemble - Elisabeth Harris
Ensemble - David Holmes
Ensemble - Morag McDowell
Ensemble - Chris McRae
Ensemble - Catherine Reaburn
Ensemble - Emma Sloman
Ensemble - Imogen Thirlwall
Stuart Maunder – Director
Roger Kirk – Production Designer
Philip Lethlean – Lighting Designer
Benjamin Northey – Conductor
Theatre , Opera , Musical ,
Can’t be recommended highly enough
Review by Michael Gilchrist 01st Oct 2016
Described as a ‘Musical Thriller’, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was first performed to critical acclaim in 1980 and has since become an established part of the operatic – as well as the musical theatre – repertoire around the world. In that time its reputation as an extraordinary work has grown steadily. A production in 2012 in London’s West End, featuring a virtuoso performance by Imelda Staunton in the role of Mrs Lovett, seemed finally to confirm that this is a work of genius.
This New Zealand opera production is at least the second professional production in Wellington. In 1999 Ellie Smith and Andy Anderson starred in a frequently brilliant re-imagination of the work set in a roadside motel, letting its profound sense of moral disenchantment resonate in a contemporary setting.
What makes Sweeney Todd so compelling? One thing is a sense of scale and wholeness in the musical structure, of abundant melodic invention emerging from a compelling underlying unity. Overall it is like some dark inversion of Turandot. There the melodic structure climaxes in the unfurling of the hero’s individual sacrifice, renewing the life of a community. And the call for a common, unsleeping vigilance to sustain that sacrifice has become the most loved aria ever written.
Here we find the same kind of unity amidst melodic complexity in the service of a central implosion, a fearfully coherent account of individual and communal collapse. Truth is dark: individuals moralise in order to facilitate amorality, they deceive at every turn – themselves most of all. And the community are blithely complicit: God that’s good! they chant as they consume what must destroy them.
Another factor is the integration of radically different elements. Brechtian alienating strategies help with this, but again they are enrolled in a kind of summation, a wholeness. Opera is ever-present but as the sign of itself – from the operatic romantic aspirations of Anthony and Johanna, the operatic pathos of the beggar woman and the bogus operatic display of the tenor Pirelli, down to the perilous fragility of the woodwind segues from one scene to another. The operatic tropes don’t lose their original significance but they are layered into the disenchantment of the work as a whole.
This doubling even seems to apply to Sondheim’s own music. The ‘pretty lady in her pretty garden’ of Pacific Overtures here becomes ‘pretty women, weather watching, flower picking’, overlaid by tones of possession and obsession and enlisted in an altogether different kind of seduction. Again, compare the excitement of people arriving to swell the city, getting off the train in Company with the scene of Sweeney’s arrival and disembarkation in London. All these factors help produce the unique palate of Sweeney Todd, its kaleidoscopic, blood-spattered monochrome.
There are the fierce juxtapositions: the galumphing of the rhythms and the abyssal undercurrent of fear; the dark waters in the bowels of the city whose queasy thrills are, at the same time, relished by its inhabitants. For the Grand Guignol theatrical tradition is woven into the piece as well, with its at times, frankly erotic enjoyment of horror and bloodshed, the arousal it finds in the outpourings of a slit throat.
And that, perhaps, is as good a point as any to begin talking about this production. For, while sticking with the richly costumed period setting, this production brings out that Grand Guignol element better than any other I have seen. But there are many other aspects to savour as well.
Opera New Zealand has combined with Opera Victoria for this production and the set and costume design is by Australian Roger Kirk. The set looks great with the high, grimy mezzaluna of a factory window standing above the tall brick pillars of a Victorian industrial environment which the natural light of reason has long since ceased to penetrate. The emphasis in the set design, though, is on positioning characters within this space – indeed within space itself, using wooden stairs and balconies. The set works exceptionally well in this vertical dimension, from the moral high ground right down to the basement from which the good people of London swarm up like rats and in which the final bathetic scenes are played out.
The lighting design complements this approach, taking on a structural quality. The chimney smoke pervading the atmosphere makes the air itself tangible – and clever use of some sophisticated lighting technology produces shifting prison-like bars of shadow around the cast. As in most respects, this show presents challenges. For the set design, the challenge is the need to have three levels in the central structure of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop, all occupying the centre of attention. But this is very well handled here.
There is bold use of materials in the costume design giving a very effective impression of Victorian dress and social structure rather than a literal representation. Beadle Bamford’s soft leather ensemble, for example, seemed ideal for this serpentine character.
Following the wonderful organ introduction that serves as a kind of perverse overture, Orchestra Wellington plays extremely well under the baton of Benjamin Northey. There are some first night nerves in evidence. The tempo of ‘The worst pies in London’, Mrs Lovett’s opening song, is too quick, making things tough for Antoinette Halloran – and this is a little surprising given that the opening chorus could have been a touch more brisk. The same could be said for ‘These are my friends’, which seems a little slow and missing the sibilance on which the lyric hangs – the “glistening” of the blades.
In terms of dynamics, too, I think the overall trajectory could be more carefully calculated to build through the show. A slightly lower general level in the second half brings a distinct improvement in nuance and sound for some singers – but this should have been more in evidence in the first half with, broadly speaking, an increasing volume being unleashed later in the show. Sweeney’s level is perfect in ‘Goodbye’ in the second half, for example, but is also right for ‘These are my friends’ in the first. Most of this may well be due to technical aspects still bedding down, of course.
Certainly, though, the major challenge that Sweeney Todd presents in terms of direction is shaping the performance so that momentum is maintained through to the end and a suitable climax is delivered. This is the weakest aspect of the writing, which definitely wanders a little in the second half. I’m not sure this is entirely overcome on Friday night. It seems that being ruthless in cutting out unnecessary dialogue and business later in the show is essential, as well as careful pacing and keeping whatever is available in reserve, musically and theatrically, to provide impact later. Again, though, I want to emphasise that this may already be anticipated in the direction and will be better defined in subsequent performances.
And with these remarks out of the way, it must be said what an outstanding production this is in every respect, including Stuart Maunder’s direction and Benjamin Northey’s musical leadership. The action seems so well pitched – partly, no doubt, because of the assured sense of the Grand Guignol style mentioned earlier, and the sense of style of the piece more generally is a triumph.
The cast are all outstanding. At the forefront, though, is undoubtedly Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role. Really, no-one should miss hearing this voice in this role: the miraculous richness of tone, the accuracy of the notes, the sense of unlimited power on tap. The big hollow sound of Len Cariou’s baritone in the original cast production always seemed particularly appropriate for this piece but Rhodes’ bass-baritone is like a dark drive shaft that gives the musical structure a new audibility and power. Dramatically, combined with Sweeney’s almost parodically dignified, aloof bearing and superb vowels, it also provides a humming libidinous core to his conspiracy with Mrs Lovett. Comparisons can be odious – so having heard Michael Ball’s much praised performance in the London production of 2012 I will only say there is none. You’ve got to hear Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
Even leaving this aspect aside, however, this is a must see production. Antoinette Halloran is excellent as a sexy Mrs Lovett, bringing out new aspects to this role with great assurance, once again showing that it is a comic masterpiece in its own right.
James Rodgers as Anthony has a gorgeous tenor and is totally on top of this role, with great acting complementing great singing. Amelia Berry as Johanna is vocally strong and again shows off her acting ability. Phillip Rhodes is another performer who keeps getting better and the role of Judge Turpin suits him well, while Andrew Glover as Beadle Bamford is equally strong. All of these voices are wonderful and at times the ensemble work of these four just sings – if one can say that in some additional, metaphorical sense.
There are plenty of plaudits due the other cast members too. Helen Medlyn does a brilliant job as the Beggar Woman, really grasping the theatrical potential of the role. Jed Granger in the demanding role of Toby is exemplary and Robert Tucker as Pirelli is all that he should be, managing the faux Italian accent with particular panache.
And, of course, this show is a gift for the Freemasons New Zealand opera chorus. Here they are able to display all their talents person by person. I don’t think the chorus in Sweeney Todd has ever sounded as consistently good as this and as always they spare nothing in the energy and skill of their acting and stagecraft.
This show can’t be recommended highly enough – you’ve got to see it.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Fleet Street Clean Sweep
Review by James Wenley 23rd Sep 2016
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. [More]
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More shades of seduction, corruption and vengeance than a political leader’s court case
Review by Michael Hooper 19th Sep 2016
A bloody good show awaits those who attend this tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Richly flavoured with Sondheim irony and perception, it is peppered with some of our best talent and baked to a perfect crunch by director Stuart Maunder who, unlike movie director Tim Burton, avoids serving it overdone.
Opening night delivers a few bits of technical gristle which does not detract materially from a beautifully choreographed, well-sung, engaging and pacey production. My beefs will come later.
The story was born as a Penny Dreadful serial in 1846 and staged soon after as The String of Pearls or The Fiend of Fleet Street. Cut to 1973, when Sondheim’s love of melodrama finds him sitting in rehearsals for Christopher Bond’s subsequent play Sweeney Todd. That visit inspired what was to become the culmination of his five 1970s musicals, and the most operatic in its form and scale, with a couple of numbers very much resembling arias.
The cocktail of opera-plus-mixer is not new: think Rogers and Hammerstein (or Hart), Gilbert & Sullivan’s defining of the operetta genre popularised by Offenbach or Strauss, and Schönberg and Boublil who must have swallowed without chewing Sweeney’s pie song (‘A Little Priest’) for the Thenardiers’ waltz in Les Misérables which premiered six years’ later.
Happily, this Maunder production has baked almost four-and-twenty cast most cannily, matching vocal skills with varying demands and even genres of songs and, in most cases, suiting characters.
The plot is (in operatic terms) relatively easy to follow. The renamed Todd has returned to London after ‘transportation’ to Australia for a 15-year sentence on a trumped up charge. He is given shelter, and other offers, by Mrs Lovett who tells him his wife poisoned herself while he was away. His urge to take revenge on the sentencing Judge Turpin is further fired up by finding his daughter has been ‘taken in’ by the judge. Above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop he opens a Tonsorial Parlour dispensing Bay Rum and summary justice to fancy clients “who went to their maker impeccably shaved” and looks to deal to Turpin.
We begin as the first notes of the Catholic funeral procession, ‘Dies Irae’, performed on the Grand Organ of the Melbourne Town Hall, float through the moody set evoking the ‘great black pit’ of industrial London with its gantries and gallows. (This is a leitmotif we are to attend, as it clues us into key action points.) Fully occupying the Civic stage, Roger Kirk’s glowering set is gloomily lit with perfect precision by Philip Lethlean and Jason Morphett, as the Prologue forms the top crust of the meaty work ahead.
Incredible Hulk Teddy Tahu Rhodes strolls on as Sweeney, accompanied by appropriately cast Kurt Weill aficionado James Benjamin Rodgers as the naïve Anthony Hope who was his saviour at sea. Vocally they are as diverse as seabed and surf, but both have beautiful singing voices.
Like a desperate dishevelled dervish, Helen Medlyn as the Beggar Woman whirls on and past, throwing out a question to which we should listen. Then it’s all gone, and we meet Mrs Lovett in her pie shop. This tidy, seamless, beautifully building scenario again evinces the artistry and organisation that we saw in Maunder’s production of Tosca last year.
As Mrs Lovett, Antoinette Halloran is marvellous, pulling us in immediately with irresistible wit, energy and earthiness as she whacks wandering wildlife off ‘The Worst Pies in London’. After Rhodes’ inert action and robotic articulation of dialogue, which he treats as single-note recitative, her gritty East End accent, breath control and dynamic enthusiasm suddenly propel us into the world of musicals. He is singing opera with technical magnificence and quake-in-your-boots resonance, but seems still to be trying to internalise how his psychopath behaves and to express it convincingly. She, with equally respectable opera cred, is just ‘doing the business’ with confidence and panache.
Rhodes does get onto a better dramatic footing at the end of Act One after reaching an epiphany where “all deserve to die”, but still has a grim face as he sings the lyrics “I’m full of joy”. That’s a sentiment better professed as he dances around the pie shop with Mrs Lovett and they flirt with the flavours of passers-by in ‘A Little Priest’. While the Protestants and Romans seem to inspire a catholic list of potential pie ingredients from vicars to bishops, Sondheim has not been sufficiently game to include rabbi, but it’s a masterful way to end the first act.
Act Two builds towards the dénouement where clues and prophecies are fulfilled, and the worlds of those who are eaten, and those who get to eat, face more subtle tests of their interactions with money, food, justice and politics. Eventually only the (relatively) innocent are spared.
I shan’t go through the show scene-by-scene; overall it does pull together to deliver a memorable evening’s entertainment thanks to the composer’s genius, an intelligent, no-holds-barred director chairing a consummate trans-Tasman creative crew, and a cast that brings together many of New Zealand’s best.
Stuart Maunder has chosen richly in the second tier and ensemble roles. Cameron Barclay, James Ioelu, Chris McRae and Morag McDowell are among the harvest of riches that the company’s three-region choral base has raised, with their talents nurtured by the Dame Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa Foundations and the unflagging support from Freemasons.
Helen Medlyn is a national treasure for her unique range across jazz, straight acting and opera and she almost throws herself into the role of Beggar Woman. Young Tobias, the boy who helps in the bakery, is our introduction to Joel Granger, who has himself survived transportation to Western Australia, and hopefully we can now claim him back for his purity of voice and nimbleness on stage.
Stuart Maunder has also claimed back another investment, Amelia Berry, whose high notes in Don Giovanni (Zerlina) were mesmerising and whose dramatic penchant (as Clorinda in La cenerentola) and voice have both grown in control and range during her three years at the Manhattan School of Music. She sings Johanna, the ward of Judge Turpin, with sweetness and subtle technique; her voice is well positioned, supported soundly and used subtly, and she is beautiful. Among the more operatic moments, her ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ is silvery and gossamer-like and beguiling, despite the staging being a bit skimpy. “If I cannot fly, let me sing,” she sweetly sings, but clearly she can do both.
Sexual allegory, one of the common themes of the Penny Dreadful, has not been treated shyly by the director. Anthony Hope, who evidently “lists to starboard”, gets a leg over his intended, while Judge Turpin’s self-flagellation scene, sometimes cut, is handled with boldness, and sensitive but explicit staging. In this and other scenes, The Judge is a fine showcase of Phillip Rhodes’ development both dramatically and vocally, never taking over the stage but always focussed and compelling in his calm possession of the role. The Pretty Women duets with the other Rhodes are chilling, harmonious and soaring yet sharply edged with ice.
Other performances and artistic development to note must include Andrew Glover as the Beadle. His scene at the harmonium in Mrs Lovett’s parlour is magnificent, with bawdy body language and sardonic humour. A decade on from his emergence with NZO he is a talent to contend with. Likewise Freemasons’ Opera Scholar Robert Tucker, who faces a challenging accent dichotomy as Music Hall charlatan Senior Pirelli, pulls off a delightful performance from pantomime to menace.
Numbering just a baker’s dozen, members of the Auckland Philharmonia somehow produce everything from sparkling minuet to gothic horror, and romantic schmaltz to oompah-pah.
The largest elephant in the room is easily disposed of: criticism of NZ Opera for performing a musical, not an opera. Such conversations go back centuries, involving many opera masterpieces that were the stage musicals of their day. To illustrate further, the Royal Shakespeare Company part-owns Les Misérables, while the Royal Opera House considered Sweeney qualified for its hallowed stage. The NZO programme notes rightly make the point that Sondheim’s theatrical world is not easy to define.
A lesser elephant could have stayed camouflaged among the icons of the Civic if it were not for a technical fingernail popping up in the gravy, to mix metaphors. At one point Mrs Lovett’s microphone became caught during Sweeney’s embrace, unreeling her like a fish hooked on a line as they separated. Her valiant efforts to retrieve and drop the mic back into her bosom seemed to last for ages. It also seemed as if his mic faltered in sympathy, and, snagged in the horror of the moment, neither of them repositioned downstage where one might hope ambient mics or audience proximity might assist.
Sondheim himself has lamented modern stagings’ reliance upon amplification. Sweeney has been presented both ‘naked’ and amped. In this production some singers need help for the intricate, sometimes labially demanding lyrics, while others have a lot of the good old ‘belter’ in them, as legendary Auckland master of that stage art, the late Miss Lee Grant, joyfully admitted to possessing. The debate continues.
Snags aside, this production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a good one, with more shades of seduction, corruption and vengeance than a political leader’s court case. It is a tempting tale, a pie to delight the eye.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Michael Hooper September 23rd, 2016
Addendum to this review
While opening night is always an occasion, I was delighted to attend a subsequent show where Teddy Tahu Rhodes had overcome the awkwardness of his dialogue, as reported in my review, and gave an excellent performance. His dialogue was gruff and gravelly, really showing some character engagement, and the Colossus of his voice was like turkish coffee - strong and textured, as I reported on RNZ National.
Antoinette Halloran's Mrs Lovett was again most winning, and the theatregoer beside me volunteered "she just draws me towards her" - a point we ran out of time to explore on Jesse Mulligan's packed programme.
Amelia Berry and James Rodgers again impressed with their fine singing skills and articulation; she with her delicacy and shading, he with his sweetness and ability to effortlessly hold quite high notes unerringly.
The sound amplification was senstitive and well modulated, and a couple of the staging glitches of opening night were resolved, although one set change was tardy. I also discovered that the unlisted keyboard parts, which really gilded the score from time-to-time, were performed by David Kelly, who should take a bow.
Sweeney's new "friend" - a red chair that would be the envy of Graham Norton - delivered its victims efficiently, enabling those down below to "serve" those up above. Such is the way of the world.
I can now unhestitatingly recommend Sweeney Todd as a grand night's musical theatre, sensitively and tastefully executed.
Editor September 22nd, 2016
Here is the link to Michael Hooper's RNZ review - with Jesse Mulligan - of SWEENEY TODD.
Broadway opera at its macabre best
Review by William Dart 19th Sep 2016
Sweeney Todd, once described by its composer, Stephen Sondheim, as a movie for the stage, had a dream venue in The Civic.
Stuart Maunder’s production for New Zealand Opera never missed a cue, balancing gusty grand guignol with dark poetry in which human souls emerged from expressionist vaudeville.
An energetic troupe of 21 singers zestfully explored Roger Kirk’s ingenious Victorian cityscape, with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra providing the snappiest of pit bands, conducted by Benjamin Northey. [More]
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