Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” a triumph for Witch Music Theatre at Wellington’s Te Auaha

By , 30/06/2021

Witch Music Theatre Charitable Trust presents:
SONDHEIM  –  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler (from a play by Christopher Bond)

Cast: Sweeney Todd – Chris Crowe
Mrs Lovett – Vanessa Stacey
Beggar Woman – Frankie Leota
Judge Turpin – Thomas Barker
Tobias Ragg – Jared Palleson
Beadle Bamford – Jthan Morgan
Anthony Hope – Zane Berguis
Johanna Barker – Olivia Stewart
Adolfo Pirelli – Ben Paterson

Ensemble: Devon Neiman, Emma Salzano, Nino Raphael, Katie Atkins, Isaac Andrews, Allegra Canton, Patrick Jennings, Michaela Cadwgan, Jackson Burling, Sinéad Keane, Minto Fung,  Natasha McAllister, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Joanne Hodgson, Jason Henderson, Tania Dreaver

Musicians: Mark W.Dorrell (Music director/keyboard), Karla Norton (violin), Samuel Berkhan(‘cello), Simon Eastwood/Jandee Song (double basses), Nick Walshe (clarinet), Peter Lamb (bassoon), Brendan Agnew (trumpet), Viv Read (horn), Brent Stewart (percussion)

Ben Emerson (director)
Nick Lerew (assistant director)
Joshua Tucker (technical designer)
Greta Casey-Solley (choreographer)
Emma Stevens (costumes)
Patrick Barnes (sound)

Te Auaha Performing Arts Centre, 65 Dixon St,. Wellington

Wednesday, 30th June, 2021

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” proclaimed the first singer shortly after the opening of Witch Music Theatre’s instantly-riveting Te Auaha production of the eponymous show  – no argument or dissent was brooked, as we had already been ensnared and drawn into an ominous, all-pervading scenario of compelling unease  generated by gothic, phantom-sounding organ figurations, dimly-perceived Nibelungen-like figures materialising from nowhere performing scrubbing-like tasks of enslavement, and a sudden, “scream-like” irruption of fearful , anguished noise, overwhelmingly visceral in its impact. We needed no further enjoiners to “attend” to what developed from this into a veritable cornucopia of theatrical action, the chorus’s taking up of the work’s exposition in an overwhelming and incisive way that never once flagged throughout the evening.

Director Ben Emerson’s approach to Stephen Sondheim’s recreation of the Victorian “penny dreadful” tale of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd has been to pull the action from Victoriana into post WW2 London, though somehow emphasising the more timeless themes of love and loss, lust and cruelty, obsession and vengeance which drive the social, economic and moral backgrounds, of the original tale, thereby, as Emerson puts it, “stay(ing) true to the text while creeping us ever closer to a chilling and hauntingly recognisable reality”, a recreative attitude that has enlivened many a starkly and impossibly cruel and monstrous folk-tale from various cultures. For me the “updating” of the scenario is always less important than the valid and believable depiction of those  qualities of “cynicism, moral ambiguity and corruption” – all of which are by no means new sins, however coloured by changing social mores.

A significant feature of this production was the integration of the orchestra in relation to the stage action. At first I thought this had been miscalculated as regards the solo singing – even with discreet microphoning, the vocal soloists’ tones often seemed masked by the sheer proximity of the instruments, no matter how sensitively played. My seat position, I think, accentuated this problem – second row from the front – from where everything at first seemed very loud. As the show went on, either the balances or my ears seemed to adjust, and I found myself less concerned regarding the singers’ audibility, and more increasingly attuned to the interaction between voices and instruments, to the point where it simply ceased to be a problem.

Central to the interaction between stage and instruments, and to the production’s general ebb and flow was music director Mark W.Dorrell, through whose hands and gestures it all came to life, increasingly so as the first part of the action proceeded. The characterisation of each musical moment, whether physical and energetic, lyrical and flowing, or poised and heart-stopping, was here  “grown” by Dorrell with his players and singers out of the whole with an inevitablilty that took our sensibilities inexorably onward and left us resonating with it all at the action’s end – masterful music-making from all concerned. I particularly relished the lurid deliciousness of the waltz tunes that accompanied some of the story’s blackest sequences, an instance being the hatching of the plan by Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett to not let the cadaver of the unfortunate “Signor Pirelli” become “an awful waste”! How wonderfully  macabre and gruesomely fascinating a marriage of music and theatre, with moods also brilliantly set alongside others inhabiting different parts of the spectrum – such as the song of the lovers, Anthony’s and Joanna’s “Kiss Me” counterpointing Judge Turpin’s and the Beadle’s discussion re enhancing the judge’s attractiveness to his ward, with “Ladies in their sensitivities”.

Ben Emerson’s direction made the most of the potentialities offered by the venue’s cheek-by-jowl proximity of stage and audience – the first few rows of seats in which I sat, were, most excitingly, in practically the same space as were the performers! – the propinquity of so many energetic, pulsating, sweating bodies right from the beginning gave the choruses a tactile quality not for the faint-hearted! I found the physicality of choreographer Greta Casey-Solly’s deployment of her forces most exhilarating (the asylum scene in Act Two had a particularly urgent, white-hot  quality), and the boldly-contrasted relief of the stillness of some scenes all the more telling – the raptness of Sweeney’s reunitement with his set of shaving razors (“These are my friends”) had a savagely ironic poignancy which then exploded into fierce joy as he exclaimed, holding the blades “My right arm is complete again!” – a moment whose power was as much the sum of the evocative surrounding parts as the gesture itself!

Technically, it was all a tour de force, the various stagings making the most of both different levels and refracted views (a clear perspex “curtain” making a telling variation on the “through a glass darkly” principle at certain moments – characters seen by us but not by those onstage, or given the illusion of concealment, adding a fantastic visual element to the barber’s various throat-cutting despatchings of some of his victims). Post-war and 1950s London would have in places probably have been almost as ill-lit, and smoke- and fog-filled as in Victorian times – though the  exterior scenarios recreated here reminded me more in places of Dennis Potter’s television series “The Singing Detective” than of Dickens. Joshua Tucker’s evocative lighting enhanced Emma Stevens’ costumes’ authentic period glow, and underpinned the morbid juxtaposition of the ordinary and the grotesque, with Mrs Lovett and  Sweeney, dressed in their “blood aprons” discussing a visit to the seaside.

Though some of the singing needed a tad more projection in places throughout the first act, I thought the characterisations of the principals irresistible and compelling throughout – the lovers, Zane Berghuis and Olivia Stewart as Anthony and Joanna, looked and sounded just as one might imagine them to do, Berghuis’s voice properly lyrical and romantic and Stewart’s voice sweet and tremulous, making a poignant blend, both responding wholeheartedly to the energies of their roles as well as to the romantic delicacies. As the Beggar-Woman Frankie Leota captured both the pitiable and the hard-bitten aspects of her character with real gusto, giving her frenzied “City on Fire!” sequence plenty of juice and her mutterings of “Mischief!” real bite.

The “villains”, Judge Turpin (Thomas Barker) and Beadle Bamford (Jthan Morgan), were sharply differentiated, Barker’s depiction of the Judge a no-holds-barred, cruel, but torn and divided man, in enslavement to his lust for his ward Joanna, and seemingly in thrall to his guilt, as witness the self-flagellation scene (as convincing in this scene as any I’ve seen “live” or on video). By contrast, Jthan Morgan’s Beadle here was very much the dandified dilettante-like fop, his affected manner making him appear more to me like a character from a Restoration Comedy – but post-war Europe was in flux and manners and modes up for grabs, a world in which personalities such as Quentin Crisp could and did flourish. Here in Morgan’s portrayal was menace of a different kind, lurking beneath a polished, suave exterior.

Another “character” was the “Italian” showman Adolfo Pirelli, colourfully played by Ben Paterson, with his young helper, Tobias Ragg, (a sensitive characterisation by Jared Palleson), the showman delivering his song brilliantly in front of the crowd,  then later calling on Sweeney after the latter “outshaved” him in a contest, threatening to expose the barber’s secret past (as a deported convict), and meeting an aforementioned grisly end at Sweeney’s hands as a result, the “Italian’s” young helper Tobias duly “adopted” by the versatile Mrs Lovett.  The boy came to regard her as his “charge”, Jared Pallesen subsequently singing a heartfelt, almost desperate  “Nothing’s gonna harm you” to her, voicing his fears for her safety in the company of “Mr. Todd”, fears that ultimately proved all too real.

Though Sondheim’s work is ultimately about the central character, one couldn’t have a great “Sweeney” without a similarly larger-than-life stage partner – and Vanessa Stacey’s Mrs Lovett was the perfect foil for the haunted, obsessive “demon barber”, bringing all of the energy and magnetism the character needed to imprint her own personality on the action – affable, vivacious, practical, earthy and occasionally sensual, classically the opposite of her destined partner in almost every way, she was, in effect, Sweeney’s “dark angel”, firstly recognising his former self, and then reconnecting him with the initial talismanic instruments that once represented his livelihood, and now were transformed into tangible means of vengeance. Stacey’s singing and acting brought out both the character’s everyday qualities listed above, and crucially realised Mrs Lovett’s ultimate tragedy – that she deserved a better fate, but, however brutally and savagely, was somehow, with  ruinous irony, enabled to fulfil her destiny.

As Sweeney Todd, I thought Chris Crowe profoundly satisfying, both in terms of his stand-alone qualities as a character, and in his interactions with others and with the world in general. His acting epitomised a damaged, insufficiently nurtured being, replete with barely-repressed fear and anger, unable to shake off his desire for revenge, as if everything, including his own ultimate destruction, was predestined; while his singing was always finely-honed, his gradations of tone and timbre set upon specific intensities and emotions throughout. I felt an edge to his stage presence the whole time, one that exuded unease and wounded feeling, though never to excess – I’ve already mentioned the totality of feeling he brought to his reconnection with his barber’s razors, characterising their functions so viscerally and chillingly with the words “you shall drip rubies” – but in  so many other places he brought different tones of menace to the part, at one point “calling out” individual audience members as his potential victims in his desire for revenge upon humanity in general and at another cursing London and its cruelties –  “It’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabits it”……. He and Vanessa Stacey as Mrs Lovett  made, I thought, a splendid pair!

Circumstances prevented me from completing this review before the show’s Wellington season finished – however I would imagine the production to be regarded by anybody who attended as an excellent advertisement for any forthcoming Witch Charitable Trust Theatre presentations, as well as for the splendidly atmospheric Te Auaha venue and its tireless team of enablers. What else can I say but “Hats off to all concerned!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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