“Sweeney Todd,” performed tonight by the Otaki Players Society, is a wonderfully dark, gruesome musical thriller and Stephen Sondheim’s best-known and most famous work. The score is melodic and lyrical, the plot richly twisted and nuanced, and the humour robust and ghastly in turns.
The character of Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846 in a Victorian penny-dreadful titled “The String of Pearls”, published in 18 parts. It was so successful the story was turned into a play even before the ending was released in print! In the years since, there have been several new iterations of the story, but all contain the original plot elements. Sondheim’s addition of a musical score advanced the work from its penny-dreadful origins, adding sophistication and more theatrical weight to the drama.
"If you like black humour, red blood and villainous behaviour, then this is the show for you."
The title character, Sweeney Todd, arrives back in London after serving a fifteen-year sentence for a crime he did not commit. After he discovers his wife is dead and his daughter abducted by the evil judge Turpin, he resumes his trade as a barber, a career well suited to his hunger for revenge. In that role, he hopes to find the opportunity to exact his vengeance on the man who destroyed his life.
Sweeney’s blood-thirsty rage becomes so overwhelming it indiscriminately encompasses anyone who opposes him, and soon, a problem presents itself: what to do with the resultant bodies?
Fortunately, his barbershop is right above a struggling meat pie store whose proprietress, more than a little in love with Sweeney, is happy to help dispose of inconvenient corpses.
One of the joys for this reviewer has been watching Otaki Players grow in their musical work as they undertake more ambitious and demanding productions each year. They have succeeded admirably, to their credit, and this production of “Sweeney Todd”, directed by Peter Carr, is no exception.
Sondheim’s music is always rich, with highly complex rhythms and counterpoints. As musical directors, Graham Orchard and Andrea King have worked well with their talented cast and led them through a demanding score, getting powerful and convincing performances from soloists and ensemble.
Dominic van de Berg: Sweeney Todd
Any actor must face questions in the titular role of Sweeney Todd. Is he the tragic victim of a corrupt society and, therefore, to be pitied, or is he a blood-crazed psychopath so fixated on violent retribution he has lost his humanity? In this production, Dominic van den Berg competently handles the contradictions inherent in his role. His powerful voice, character-based acting, and enormous stage presence suggest a solid, dramatic future for this young man.
Tracy Wills-Wright: Mrs Lovett
His partner-in-crime, Tracy Wills-Wright, as Mrs. Lovett, undoubtedly enjoys the plum part in the drama. Her role provides light relief in an otherwise ghoulish blood-fest. Her humour is earthy, and her morals are entirely self-centred. Tracy is a seasoned veteran, having worked in many theatres on the Kapiti Coast and Horowhenua. Her experience makes her exuberant portrayal of such a seriously flawed character a delight.
Frankie Viludlich (Johanna) and Miles Harrington
The young lovers, played by Miles Harrington and Frankie Viludlich, were charming and more than competent in their roles. Both had lovely voices that met the demands of Sondheim’s duets and quartets.
Tua Fatale as Signor Adolfo
Signor Adolfo Pirelli, played by Tua Faavale, was a crowd favourite. He made the most of every humorous line.
Nick Edwards, Judge Turpin
Nick Edwards’ grim portrayal of Judge Turpin was critical, both to the arc of Sweeney’s story and to positioning the work in Victorian England's grim, industrial development. Nick showed the audience a man so corrupted and confused by his power that he could justify sending his ward to an insane asylum when she spurned his advances. In their absolute amorality, Sweeney and Turpin had become equal and opposites.
It was an exciting use of theatrical space to have a small chorus use the boxes. This mirrored the young lovers using the box on the opposite side of the theatre.
The more minor roles and the chorus handled the demanding score competently. The sheer complexity of the music occasionally made this reviewer wish there were surtitles, as some of the subtleties of text and music were hard to hear.
The set was highly effective: A simple set of steps on one side and a complex barber shop/ pie shop arrangement on the other. The set allowed for unfettered movement by the chorus, focusing attention on the protagonists in their discrete spaces.
Lighting was critical in this production and essential in building and maintaining tension. Costumes were simple, effective and important.
Altogether one of the most demanding and sophisticated musical productions Otaki Players Society has embarked on, and I highly recommend it. If you like black humour, red blood and villainous behaviour, then this is the show for you.