Sweeney Todd | Victorian OperaPhoto – Martin Philbey

Melbourne is having something of a musical boost at the moment, with over a half dozen productions in various theatres this week. Celebrating Victorian Opera's 10th anniversary year, and completing their Sondheim trilogy, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, A Musical Thriller (whew!), is a welcome addition to the list.

This classic gothic musical thriller has had several incarnations, with this particular storyline inspired by a Christopher Bond play. Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) turned a melodrama into a sinister work that crosses between opera, operetta and musical theatre.

As we "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" we enter a dark period of Victorian London, where the powerful abuse their positions and Todd, formerly known as Benjamin Barker, returns to London to take revenge on the men who ruined his life.

A dubious pie shop owner, Mrs Lovett, recognises Todd, and with lust in her heart, teams up with him in a deadly match that ultimately leads them both on a road to destruction.

What helps this gothic tale rise above the melodrama is of course the genius of Sondheim's music and his remarkable ability to add humour and suspense, and a talent to create some wonderful juxtapositions (a beautiful balled, Johanna, is sung while a razor blade is menacingly flashed against a victim's throat).

Director Stuart Maunder, Musical Director Phoebe Briggs, and designers Roger Kirk (set and costumes), Philip Lethlean (lighting) and Jim Atkins (sound) have contributed collectively to create a disturbing, haunting but highly entertaining production.

The gloomy look with its highly effective atmospheric lighting and industrial sounds add greatly to the story's setting.

A company of operatic and musical theatre performers blend well to give the work a grand scale, without losing the intimacy of the story.

Phillip Rhodes (Judge Turpin), David Rogers-Smith (Pirelli), Ross Hannaford (Tobias Ragg), and Kanen Breen (The Beadle) all shine in their featured roles.

Unfortunately the force that is Teddy Tahu Rhodes is not enough to bring out the nuances in the demanding and complex role of Sweeney Todd. While Rhodes has undeniable presence and a singing voice that sends chills through you, his acting performance is largely delivered on one level, almost grunting out lines with an accent that sounds more South African than South London.

Antoinette Halloran, who initially appears to be a little young to play Mrs Lovett, manages to steal the stage from everyone around her. Her Mrs Lovett is much less grotesque than is usually portrayed, and Halloran brings much needed humour, sexiness and warmth to the role.

This Sweeney Todd is on the whole a fun, sinister and lovely production to watch, with some minor aspects that could be improved. Certainly any new audience members will enjoy the various plot twists, as well as the gore. And when you have some of those scathing Sondheim lyrics and haunting melodies to savour, little else matters. 

Victorian Opera presents
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
music and Lyrics Stephen Sondheim | book Hugh Wheeler | from an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Director Stuart Maunder

Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 16 – 25 July 2015
Bookings: www.victorianopera.com.au

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