WNO’s Gruesome Sweeney Todd Brings Madness to the Musical Theatre

03/11/2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stephen Sondheim,  Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – A Musical ThrillerSoloists and Orchestras of Welsh National Opera/James Southall (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 29.10.2015. (RJF)

Sweeney Todd

WNO’s Sweeney Todd (c) Welsh National Opera

Sondheim,  Sweeney Todd

Cast:

Sweeney Todd: David Amsperger
Mrs. Lovett: Janis Kelly
Anthont Hope: Jamie Muscato
Johanna Barker: Soraya Mafi
Beggar Woman: Charlotte Page
Judge Turpin: Steven Page
Beadle Bamford: Aled Hall
Tobias Ragg: George Ure
Pirelli: Paul Charles Clarke
Jonas Fogg: George Newton-Fitzgerald

Production:

Directory: James Brining
Designer:  Colin Richmond
Choreographer: Anna Morrissey
Lighting on tour: Ian Jones.

This work might be considered a strange choice for WNO as it sought to join the other operatic companies in the UK by pursuing musical theatre, perhaps in a bid to get bums on seats and, or, spread their appeal to a new audience or new generation. Premiered on March 1st 1979 in New York it recounts the life of a murderer in the slums of London in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. A strange choice you might think for a musical or even music drama. In school half term week I have no idea how many came to the performances in Llandudno hoping for light entertainment that many associate with the term musical. For this venture WNO added professional singers to a staging updated to the year of the premiere. Originally created at Dundee Rep Ensemble it has been widely seen elsewhere in the original rather than this orchestral supported musical format. The music is best described as background sound with postmodern effects and brief melodies.

As drama and madness, the theme of WNO Autumn season, it works, although I personally would not sully the term musical to describe it. The set, particularly the barber’s chair and cinematic effects are quite superb as are some of the performances. Particularly outstanding is that of Janis Kelly as Todd’s new woman. Hearing and seeing her as a singing actress reminded me of Eric Roberts as Doctor Bartolo in Rossini’s Barber, seen several times in Llandudno in the shared production with Opera North. Her every little tick, facial expression and body movement serving the creation of the part to perfection. She lives acts and portrays the role that is anything but appealing, but becomes the centre of the action creating a woman infatuated by the sadistic but imposing Todd as portrayed by David Amsperger – at least until she becomes a victim of the Demon Barber. Amsperger himself lacks clarity, let alone vocal nuance, in his English but is not alone in that among the cast. With singers often not renowned for the projection of the spoken word the absence of titles did not help the detail and moments of humour or pathos.

Elsewhere among the cast Steven Page as Judge Turpin was clear in delivery, as was Paul Charles Clarke as Pirelli. Best of all was Todd’s Barber’s Chair. It never failed to work and entertain at the same time. Sweeney Todd was gruesome but very effective. If that was life in Victorian England, I am glad I am around today, not then!

Robert J Farr

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