By Jerome Studdy Staging a popular musical is a double edged razor. You can draw a large crowd, but that crowd will likely know the songs already, which means that when you forget lines or swap lyrics the audience will probably know. Of course, when your Musical Director is singing the lyrics at you from the pit because you’ve lost your timing in the music, then everyone knows and we have a problem.
Last night, TEG Life Like Company opened their production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at ICC Sydney – Darling Harbour Theatre. From the very first notes of the organ overture a large part of the audience was lost; the show was underwhelming and seemed to lack cohesive vision and direction.
What should have been a feast and festival of the grim and gruesome, was instead a very drawn out affair full of missed cues, poor ensemble communication, technical mishaps, and poor choices. Whilst some of this may be attributed to opening night jitters, it was disappointing given the scale of the production.
Anthony Warlow as the eponymous barber, Sweeney, sang the part well, and was reasonable in the remainder of his portrayal. His gruff vocality was well used, and otherwise his acting was sufficient to carry the lead. Partnered onstage by Gina Riley as Mrs Lovett, the two had very fleeting moments of connection and lacked any real chemistry or communication. Though I can't make comment on the audition process, it seems that the two were selected as individual draw cards for the production, and perhaps weren't given appropriate consideration as a partnership.
With Warlow's more operatic tones and Riley's strident voice, the two did not achieve an effective blend of tone or character. Chalk and Cheese. Riley’s portrayal of Mrs Lovett was best in its moments where she could lean into the comedic aspects, and these moments were genuinely enjoyable. However, the remainder of the performance was not at the usual brilliance we've come to expect from Riley.
The role of Lovett is not the simple alto that it’s made out to be. It is devious and complex in the trademark Sondheim way, and it left Riley and a number of other cast members appearing quite spooked on stage and, surprisingly, visibly seeking cues from the pit.
Shadowing the leads were Genevieve Kingsford as Johanna, and Owen McCredie as Anthony Hope. The two performed quite well as a couple, and did demonstrate a genuine connection. Kingsford neatly captured the manic porcelain doll of Johanna, but was let down by a dress and wig that were entirely jarring onstage. Whilst Kim Bishop's costume illustrations in the program read quite nicely, poor choices in fabric meant that some characters looked garish under blue light and didn't blend into the context.
Vocally, she performed the part well with excellent diction and phrase, however, her lines were often muddied by a heavy reliance on vibrato. McCredie sang well as Anthony, however, his physicality in the performance was both stiff and sagging in tandem. Again, McCredie’s costume was to his detriment as it rendered him a complete stranger onstage.
The performances were not all flawed, with an absolutely standout performance from Jonathan Hickey as Tobias Ragg. “Not While I’m Around” was an utter triumph on Hickey’s behalf as his soaring range, clarity of tone, and beautiful, tender approach to character created a shimmering moment onstage. The audience were grateful to enjoy a performance that felt comfortable, secure, and genuine. Compliments must also go to Tod Strike for his performance as Adolfo Pirelli. Strike manipulated accent well, and was able to leap to the extremities of character and range with incredible dexterity. The remaining cast members and ensemble all gave good vocal performances, but were often engrossed in their singing such that it detracted from the remainder of their performance.
Technically, the show was big-budget, and tried its best to cover the flaws of the show with smoke and mirrors. Unfortunately, this compounded the disjunction of the show. Microphone cues were missed, lighting cues were sloppy, audio mixing was flat and poorly balanced, the beautifully aesthetic set was poorly considered in its practicality and performance, prop design (in particular, Sweeney’s barber chair) left much to be desired as cast juggled real props and miming for the entire show, and the costumes and wigs were incohesive both onstage and in reference to the plot. The Darling Harbour Theatre is an incredibly unforgiving venue (with some glaring design flaws of its own) that requires some very intelligent choices to navigate the restrictions of the space and the acoustics. Unfortunately, those choices were not made, so the venue imposed upon the performance.
Ultimately, it was a disappointing show to watch. It felt like a show that was under-rehearsed, and put together by a team of producers in the interest of turning a profit. That’s not to say that the show is completely without merit or redemption. I'm certain that, given the confidence of having cracked opening night, and a decent rally amongst the cast, this could be a good show. Whether it lives up to the arena spectacular hype still remains to be seen. If you're in Sydney and desperate to see the show, see if you can score a cheap ticket. Otherwise, it's likely to be a much better viewing experience in Her Majesty's Theatre for the Melbourne leg of the tour.
Photo Credit: Ben Fon
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.