Review: Sweeney Todd (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 20, 2014
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Libretto: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Giles Gartrell–Mills
Cast: Josh Anderson, Erin Bogart, Briony Burnes, Jamie Collette, Justin Cotta, Daisy Cousens, Courtney Glass, Michael Jones, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Lucy Miller, Carl Olsen, Joel Paszkowski, Steven Ritchie, Chelsea Taylor, Aimee Timmins, Simon Ward, Byron Watson
Photographs © Bob Seary

Theatre review
We all love a musical that has everything; humour, drama, talent, surprise and great music. All this is found in Giles Gartrell-Mills’ production of Sweeney Todd for the New Theatre, along with a good deal of ingenious low budget innovation, and a healthy dose of morbidity. It appears that Stephen Sondheim’s famous work can be staged without complex set designs and special effects, as long as gifted individuals are committed to presenting the best of their abilities, and an astute director is at the centre orchestrating an amalgamation that features all the strengths of each collaborator.

With Sweeney Todd, Gartrell-Mills shows that he is a man of excellent taste who has a brave approach to the theatrical arts. The emotions are big in his musical, as are the characters and their singing, but everything converges to tell a fascinating story that grips and entertains us, while making the many outrageous scenarios seem entirely believable. He has a wonderful team of seventeen performers at his disposal, and is careful to position each one in the most flattering light, so that the best singers can deliver breathtakingly powerful notes, and the strongest actors can impress with their delicious flair and intensity.

Justin Cotta plays the Demon Barber of Fleet Street with a grand and magnetic madness. The agility in his body and face, along with a professional awareness of how his character is perceived with every subtle shift in gesture and look, contribute to a performance that is precise, polished and very delightful. His voice is not perfectly suited to the material, but he sings it all with exuberance and accuracy. Similarly, Lucy Miller is not the best singer in the world for the role of Mrs Lovett, but the abundance of skills she displays, brings to life one of the stage’s most interesting and complex figures. Miller is charming, strong and instinctual. The several startling twists her character reveals are brilliantly performed, and her star quality shines brightly in the production. We cannot keep our eyes away from everything she presents, and she deserves every ovation awarded for her work in this production.

This review will not discuss every performer’s work but the entire support cast is truly fabulous. In the role of the Beggar Woman is Courtney Glass, who steals the show at each small appearance, with her sublime vocals and meticulous acting. Glass’ part is a smaller one, but she is flawless at every turn. Byron Watson does not have the right physicality for Judge Turpin but his voice is a highlight of the production. His deep and tremorous baritone brings an operatic sensibility to Sondheim’s music, and we lose ourselves in the beautiful baroque flavour of the compositions.

Liam Kemp’s achievement as musical director and pianist cannot be understated. He has condensed the score to an absolute minimum, with just himself, plus a violinist and a double bassist providing accompaniment for the whole show. The three-piece outfit pulls off an unbelievable feat, creating a soundscape that is dynamic, emotional and theatrical, culminating in a Bernard Herrmann inspired moment where Sweeney Todd meets Norman Bates, and the suspense becomes almost too much to bear. Also outstanding is the set design, comprised of three simple pieces in a hundred configurations, exposing Gartrell-Mills’ imagination to be wildly remarkable. His use of space is quite extraordinary, and one cannot resist imagining what he may be able to achieve with a more substantial design budget.

Musicals are best consumed sentimental, and Gartrell-Mills delivers this dark tale with a big emotional punch. Many of the characters are deplorable and nasty, yet we are seduced into connecting with them, and sometimes even identifying with them. They live in a world far removed from our realities, but we understand their desires and motivations, and we invest heavily into their stories of revenge and murder. We do not think of independent theatre as the best platform for the majestic, opulent musical, but on this occasion, David has emerged seemingly out of nowhere, to slash the throat of Goliath in awesome splendour.