Venue: Darling Harbour Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 13 – 16, 2019
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Theresa Borg
Cast: Anton Berezin, Debra Byrne, Michael Falzon, Jonathan Hickey, Genevieve Kingsford, Owen McCredie, Gina Riley, Daniel Sumegi, Anthony Warlow
Image by Ben Fon
Stephen Sondheim has under his belt, countless celebrated works, and Sweeney Todd is amongst his most popular. It is masterfully crafted, with ample humour and drama to accompany some sensational songs, all guaranteed to please, and to secure bums on seats. The story is macabre, involving a crestfallen old barber trying to murder his way to salvation, and in the process victims are turned into pie fillings fed to an unknowing public. There is meaningful symbolism that could be deciphered, but depending on the quality of a presentation, as on any theatrical occasion, we might prefer to enjoy only the surface, to revel in its song and dance, and ignore any possibility of deeper resonances.
Theresa Borg’s direction may not inspire an experience that is particularly contemplative, but what she assembles is a professional staging showcasing a splendid piece of writing that proves itself virtually fail-safe. Its star Anthony Warlow is certainly a bankable resource, demonstrating his own infallibility, along with an immense likeability, that simply does not allow us to regard anything he offers as less than magical. In the midst of mediocrity, Warlow’s talent is still an exquisite beacon. Mrs. Lovett the baker is played by television icon Gina Riley, whose comedy chops justifies her shared top billing with theatre veteran Warlow; her vibrancy is the saving grace in a presentation needlessly, and strangely, safe and predictable. Genevieve Kingsford and Owen McCredie are the young lovebirds Johanna and Anthony, both performers suitably beautiful in appearance and in voice, able to provide a believable sense of romance to their scenes.
Vanessa Scammell serves as musical director, bringing considerable spirit to proceedings but as a whole, the production never really feels much more than a rudimentary effort. Mrs. Lovett’s customers love her pies. Their satisfaction with her product does not require any explanation about ingredients or methods. Likewise, when art is effective, one is tempted not to ask how things are put together, we simply indulge in the wonder that it delivers, allowing the mystery to wash over us, a transcendental moment likely to be diminished when deconstructed and understood. When art is less than enchanting however, it is perhaps wise to investigate failures, but always remembering to question why anyone should think that they deserve better.