When Anthony Warlow was asked if he would play the murderous barber in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street for TEG Life Like Company, he took several months to decide. Though he had long coveted the part, it was a darker vocal role for him. Eventually he said yes – and he is superb, giving an extraordinary performance that outshines everything around him – though the orchestra also does a terrific job under Musical Director Vanessa Scammell.

Sweeney ToddGina Riley and Anthony Warlow in Sweeney Todd. Photograph © Ben Fon

The character of the throat-slashing Sweeney Todd first became popular in the serialised Victorian penny dreadful publications. Sondheim decided to write his grisly musical thriller about a barber hellbent on revenge, and his landlady Mrs Lovett who uses his victims as fresh meat for the pies in her pie shop, after seeing Christopher Bond’s 1973 play in London. Bond added a psychological background to the story, portraying Todd as the victim of a ruthless judge who had him transported to Australia on trumped up charges so he could seduce his wife.

Drawing on Bond’s take and Grand Guignol, Sondheim’s show opened on Broadway in 1979, directed by Hal Prince, and then in London’s West End in 1980. Though it was not a financial hit when it premiered, it is now recognised as a masterpiece and has been widely performed both as a musical and by opera companies including Opera Australia and Victorian Opera, with West Australian Opera staging it next month.

This production, directed by Theresa Borg, is described as a concert version, but it uses a set and costumes, with the performers off-book. However, the production feels very traditional and rather messy around the edges, without a strong, coherent approach, and with little dramatic weight.

Sweeney ToddAnthony Warlow and cast members in Sweeney Todd. Photograph © Ben Fon

A 22-piece orchestra, conducted by Scammell, sits on the right-hand side of the stage, with a grandfather clock and a pathway through them used by the cast when exiting on that side. Charlotte Lane’s set design suggests a sketch of a derelict mansion with Victorian paintings on the wall, a large mirror that opens to create a balcony for Todd’s daughter Johanna and allows us to see her through it at times, and a raised platform for Todd’s barber’s room over the pie shop.

With the walls stained a dark red (an obvious analogy), it’s a drab space that presumably draws on the idea of the cheap penny dreadfuls, but though it has a macabre look it is neither real enough to feel authentic nor stylised enough to feel inventive. There is also a large table that is frequently wheeled around by the cast in rather clumsy fashion. Kim Bishop’s largely monochrome costuming works well, adding some vitality to the design, but the lighting (Tom Wills) is often very shadowy, with lights just missing the actors at times.

The venue, which was not designed as a full-time lyric theatre, has obviously posed some challenges for the creative and production team. On top of that, there were several bouts of extremely loud fireworks in Darling Harbour, which penetrated the venue clearly. The show will doubtless sit better in Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.

Sweeney ToddDaniel Sumegi and Anton Berezin in Sweeney Todd. Photograph © Ben Fon

Borg opens her production with Todd appearing from a séance, but the idea is not developed further. And though she writes in the program that she “wanted Lucy to be front of our minds as Sweeney’s vendetta plays out”, that doesn’t eventuate.

Warlow, however, is mesmerising from the moment he emerges. He is in superb form vocally, singing with a burnished, ravishingly beautiful tone; his voice rich and resonant across the register, and thrilling at the top. He is also a consummate actor and the character’s emotional journey is immaculately detailed. When he first arrives in London, after 15 years in Australia, he shows us flashes of the honest, naive man that he once was. Encountering Mrs Lovett, he still has a sense of humour about him as well a dashing quality. But as his obsession to get even with the corrupt, lascivious judge increases, the character gradually darkens.

Gina Riley is entertaining as Mrs Lovett and very funny at times, though she doesn’t feel as manipulative or as tough as the character is usually portrayed. Opera bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi is a powerful presence as the evil Judge and has just the right vocal heft for the role. When he and Warlow sing Pretty Women together it is one of the vocal highlights.

Jonathan Hickey as Tobias Ragg in Sweeney Todd. Photograph © Ben Fon

Jonthan Hickey is impressive as Tobias, and gives a touching rendition of Not While I’m Around. Owen McCredie sings well as Anthony and there are also solid performances from Debra Byrne as the beggar woman and Tod Strike as the mountebank salesman Pirelli.

The orchestra does a tremendous job of playing Sondheim’s dark, brooding, complex, glorious score. But the cast are left adrift in an unfocussed production and the only time the show really hits home emotionally is thanks to Warlow – who is unforgettable in a performance that deserves five stars.

Sweeney Todd plays in the Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney until June 16, and then at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, June 20 – 23


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