Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, the chorus sings. And that’s no small feat.
Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece is an Everest musical for any company. It calls for a big orchestra. Big voices. Big emotions, from playful vaudeville to macabre tragedy. Complex staging. Subtle shifts in mood and musicality.
There are variations, of course. Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson performed the whole thing out front of the New York Philharmonic in 2014. Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone played their own instruments in a stripped-back Broadway production in 2005. A regional British troupe staged the show in a poky pie shop (later transported to London and New York).
But the Melbourne-based Life Like Company, which has stuck largely to chamber work until now, aren’t doing this by halves. They have the orchestra, a 22-piece ensemble crowded stage left, led by musical director Vanessa Scammell. They have the rather elaborate staging, at least for a show that cautioned would be “semi-staged”, with its ornately gothic split-level house designed by Charlotte Lane. They have a full and largely fine cast, led by a performer of global reputation in the title role.
What they don’t have, sadly, is a theatre space that works, at least in Sydney (the Melbourne run plays a real theatre in Her Majesty’s). Or the rehearsal time to iron out a scrappy, sloppy, only sporadically brilliant show.
Anthony Warlow’s Sweeney is every bit as wounded and menacing as the role requires. It transcends the cartoon of a vengeful murderer to be the complex anti-hero that makes the piece so delicious.
First, the venue. Calling it a “theatre” is generous. It is, in fact, a cavernous conference hall, with an enormous bank of ranked seating and an enormous balcony that will sit entirely empty for the six-night run. There isn’t a single moment of intimacy. The acoustics are terrible and exposed to the outside elements, including nightly fireworks punctuating the drama at awkward moments. The lighting palette for designer Tom Willis is limited.
And there were missed cues aplenty, in sound, lighting and performance. It’s a show, helmed by inexperienced director Theresa Borg, that will get better every night. Cold comfort, no doubt, for those who shelled out up to $224 for seats early in the run.
There is one shining gem, however, and his name is Anthony Warlow. On signing him up, the company would have been wise to ditch the cheap theatrics and just let the man sing. It’s a pleasure to listen to.
Warlow, we know, has a dusky voice to die for. But he rarely gets a part he can sink his teeth into. His Sweeney is every bit as wounded and menacing as the role requires. It transcends the cartoon of a vengeful murderer to be the complex anti-hero that makes the piece so delicious.
He deserves better than this ragtag production.
Much of the crowd will come for Gina Riley, beloved TV comedian that she is, who gets her meatiest musical role as Mrs Lovett. In so many scenes Riley, with enviable comedic chops, makes the right creative choices. But her untested voice and stage skills too often let her down.
She gets completely lost in The Worst Pies In London, a fiendish solo patter number that hasn’t been sung better than Angela Lansbury in the 1979 original. But she warms up throughout the first act, coming together with Warlow for the blackly riotous A Little Priest to close act two. That number, with Sondheim’s laugh-out-loud lyrics, remains an utter joy.
The supporting players are well cast for the most part. Daniel Sumegi has enough gravity as Judge Turpin. Tod Strike, a late replacement for Michael Falzon, is a buoyant Adolfo Pirelli. Genevieve Kingsford’s warm soprano instrument is perfect for Johanna. Owen McCredie struggles a little in his upper register and is a tad earnest as Anthony. Sweet tenor Jonathan Hickey is particularly good as Tobias. So is Debra Byrne in the small but pivotal role of the Beggar Woman, working the stage like the pro she is. Thinking about a production that swaps Byrne and Riley is irresistible.
Attend they did. Shine, though, they were not able.
Sweeney Todd plays the Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney until June 16. It plays Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on June 20-23.
Photo by Ben Fon of Gina Riley and Anthony Warlow in Sweeney Todd.