SWEENEY TODD The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The Civic - Auckland Live, Auckland

17/09/2016 - 24/09/2016

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

30/09/2016 - 05/10/2016

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

12/10/2016 - 15/10/2016

Production Details

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.”

Sweeney Todd 

The Civic, Auckland
17-24 September
Book here

St James Theatre, Wellington
30 September – 5 October
Book here

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch 
12-15 October
Book here

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 ,

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.  


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.

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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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