Victorian Opera: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s infamous musical thriller, is brought to visceral reality at Arts Centre Melbourne, completing a highly successful trilogy of Sondheim productions by Victorian Opera, following Into the Woods (2014) and Sunday in the Park with George (2013).

Sweeney Todd. Teddy Tahu Rhodes & Antoinette Halloran
Sweeney Todd. Teddy Tahu Rhodes & Antoinette Halloran

This grizzly revenge tragedy tells the tale of a young barber, Benjamin Barker (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) who, after being falsely prosecuted and exiled to “the colonies” at the hands of the devious Judge Turpin (Phillip Rhodes), returns to London to seek out those who wronged him. Adopting the name Sweeney Todd, the young barber takes residency above a small shop owned by the wily Mrs Lovett (Antoinette Halloran), peddler of “the worst pies in London”, and the pair soon team up to exact Sweeney’s vengeance on a morally destitute world.

Tony Award winner Roger Kirk’s bleak and towering set plants us firmly in the grimy industrial underbelly of Victorian London, a tangled mass of scaffolding and gangways inhabited by bustling swarms of sinister undesirables and colourful irregulars.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes is dark and brooding in the title role, although sadly lends little more to his characterisation of Todd, which is a tremendous disappointment. Despite Todd’s vengeful single-mindedness, the character requires a certain level of charm and charisma in order to mesmerise an audience into rooting for such a truly vicious and maniacal anti-hero, which sadly Tahu Rhodes fails to imbue, instead reducing Todd to little more than a lumbering, one-dimensional brute.

His voice is impressive and easily commands the space, but is undermined by a simple lack of adequate articulation and many of Todd’s most important lines are swallowed up in the booming baritone.

Antoinette Halloran is stunning as Mrs Lovett, lending her a cheeky liveliness and manipulative cunning that make her both profoundly loveable and quietly dangerous, and Ross Hannaford as the young Toby, shines with a naïve and tender charm that makes the final scene terrifically unsettling.

Phillip Rhodes delivers a strong performance as the dastardly Judge Turpin, although is barely afforded enough stage time to adequately establish his licentious lawman as the show’s central antagonist. With the omission of Turpin’s main aria (“Johanna: Mea Culpa”) from this edit of the show, so much of this wonderfully complex and thoroughly revolting villain is sadly lost, and he is almost overshadowed by his slimy off-sider Beadle Bamford (played with relish and aplomb by Kanen Breen).

Despite director Stuart Maunder’s expert hand, and strong design on all fronts, this production could still afford to be so much darker. For a show that carries with it such a notorious and gruesome reputation, I was left surprisingly hungry for viscera and disappointed that many of the central characters were treated more like loveable caricatures than the truly hideous monsters that they have the potential to be. In this respect, the show is carried by its outstanding ensemble and supporting cast, whose gaunt figures acts as a contemporary embodiment of the traditional Greek Chorus, howling ominous commentary from the footlights and injecting the show with much of its requisite grotesquery.

Overall, this Sweeney is musically and visually stunning, and performed, for the most part, with great finesse. Victorian Opera have served up a show that, while not quite to die for, is certainly at least worth a substantial maiming.

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