A classic tale of revenge and its ultimately self-destructive nature.
The Western Australian Opera Company’s musical adaptation of Sweeney Todd, directed by Stuart Maunder and starring Ben Mingay as Todd, closely follows the plot of the 2007 Tim Burton film. Advertised as a “Musical Thriller” but presented by the WA Opera, the show is a hybrid form with a familiar plot: after a 15-year exile as a convict in Botany Bay, Sweeney Todd the barber returns to seek revenge on the London judge who raped his wife and now plans to marry Todd’s young and beautiful daughter, Johanna. The show has been described as “an opera, a musical, a musical play, an operetta and almost every other musical or dramatic form” by Stuart Maunder, the show’s Director. Maunder suggests that the show’s form as isn’t as important as its theatrical potential, writing in the brochure: “Does it matter? Perhaps not. The piece is one of the most powerful, dramatic and theatrical horror tales ever set to music.”
If you go to this show expecting to be thrilled or unsettled by this performance of “dramatic and theatrical horror”, then prepare to be disappointed. The show’s ambition is hindered by its reliance on the melodrama of the plot, and it aligns itself more so with the genre of a black comedy than any consistent musical or opera. The musical arrangements themselves cannot be faulted, but the combination of operatic ballads with sparse dialogue and a large chorus ensemble makes for a performance that is, at times, static and confused. The performance is also funny in parts, with audible laughs from the audience – but in general the plot is as predictable and clichéd as a Charles Dickens novel; you find out everyone is related, and the tension is largely created by a hackneyed dramatic irony. Given that the story of Sweeney Todd was originally based on a Victorian penny-dreadful, it might be harsh to judge its simplistic plot in the 2019 era of serial and meta-narrative. This is where the strengths of the show do emerge: the musical arrangements give the show a grand scale and appeal, despite the simple narrative.
The result is, Sweeney Todd A Musical Thriller is a fun little performance to watch. Whilst being predictable, the plot is still cohesive enough to be entertaining and there are sufficient laughs and narrative tension that you want to stick around to see how it is all tied neatly together – even though you might already feel that inevitably the bad people will be punished and the good people will live happily ever after.
The highlight of this performance is the lovesick Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd’s partner in his murderous rampage, who disposes of the bodies by baking them into delicious pies. Mrs. Lovett, played by Antoinette Halloran, brings vibrancy and presence to the part, alternating between humorous songs and witty dialogue. Halloran did not just stand around waiting for her turn to sing, and acted brilliantly in between, a quality lacking in much of the chorus, who relied instead upon the score to communicate any emotion. This lifted the character of Mrs Lovett from a two-dimensional plot driver, to a living breathing woman who the audience was invested in. Other characters such as Tobias (Joshua Reckless), Judge Turpin (James Clayton), and the Beggar Woman (Fiona Campbell) also had depth and were believable and nuanced characters.
Unfortunately, the other main characters (Sweeney Todd, Anthony and Johanna) while being fantastic singers, delivered their songs and let the narrative momentum rest solely on the information contained within the music. This musical narration, while stunningly sung, told the audience what was going on, rather than showing them. This is where Maunder’s earlier question of genre begins to be problematic; the show dabbled with the expectations of both opera and the stage musical and committed to neither. The resultant effect was particularly problematic with the characterisation of Johanna; I was only able to decipher three words she sung for the whole performance (a comment I heard echoed in the hallways during intermission). This rendered one of the main plot lines (the romance between Johanna and Anthony) superficial and to be frank, tiresome. There is only so long you can watch two people singing unintelligibly and gesturing in a clichéd ‘unrequited love’ sort of way to each other, before you begin wishing that Sweeney Todd would come on stage and put them out of their misery and move things along.
The supporting cast, who acted as a chorus, created a believable bustling London atmosphere and one of the pleasures of the performance was watching the seamless transitions of setting and the antics of minor characters in the roles of everyday Victorian Londoners. The orchestra was excellent, with set changes being signalled by a discordant whistle which at first was unpleasant but worked as a motif for the unsettling and grotesque nature of events within the play.
Should you go? Well, if you opt for a cheap ticket ($30) then you can have a reasonably priced fun night out and get to do something a bit different. However, I wouldn’t bother forking out $100 for a seat; just get some mates over and watch the film – you will know exactly which kind of musical experience you are getting yourself into.
2.5 stars out of 5
Words by Myra Ryan