Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne
18 July, 2015

The seductive allure of musical theatre is increasingly attracting the attentions of the artistic directors of our nation’s opera companies, with the promise of commercial rewards and newly attracted audiences an opportunity too good to pass up. It might, superficially at least, feel like an easy gambit – surely the relative simplicity of musical theatre compared to the vocal powers needed to deliver opera would make the transition a cinch. But don’t be fooled: these two genres are very different beasts, and some shortcomings in the skills needed for the highest quality musical theatre has left a disappointingly conspicuous blemish on Victorian Opera’s otherwise highly accomplished performance of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece, Sweeney Todd.

Perhaps Sondheim’s biggest hit to date, this penny dreadful inspired gothic horror of blood-soaked revenge, delicious cannibalism and tonsorial homicide has been an endlessly generous source for directors all over the world, particularly in its uncanny ability to scale up or pare back without any discernable impact on its musical or theatrical potency. Set in 1840’s London, Botany Bay escapee Benjamin Barker, transported for life after being falsely convicted by the corrupt Judge Turpin on trumped up charges, manages to struggle back to the city, aided by young sailor Anthony Hope, in search of his wife, Lucy, and daughter, Joanna. Upon discovering that his family are either dead or captive, Barker assumes the name Sweeney Todd and assisted by the cunning and manipulative Mrs Lovett, he embarks upon a chilling path of murder and revenge.

(Photo: Jeff Busby)

Director Stuart Maunder’s mid-scale staging aims to shoehorn in as much Broadway punch into the relatively modest space available at the Melbourne Arts Centre’s Playhouse, with some success. The energy of this show is brisk and razor sharp, wringing as much gory melodrama and Victorian sensationalism out of the narrative as possible. Occasionally the direction veers pretty close to being overly hammy, but this does little to diminish the enjoyment of this highly entertaining account. Another of the triumphs of this production is Roger Kirk’s multi-level, early-industrial set, with its clever and versatile rotating pie shop-cum-bakehouse, offering a dark yet dynamic backdrop, full of opportunities for the chorus to pop up and leer at the audience. Philip Lethlean’s lighting design is similarly historical with echoes of vaudevillian limelight and haze to accentuate the cast’s sinister and spooky hammer-horror make-up and decaying 19th-century costume.

A compact pit orchestra featuring 12 members from the Orchestra Victoria (bolstered by a range of handy instrumental additions courtesy of a synthesiser), under the baton of Musical Director Phoebe Briggs delivered a skilled realisation of the score. The 12 members of the chorus offered an equally polished performance, although occasionally bungled amplification of the pit and the cast sometimes smeared the balance.

The excellent roll call of principals have been recruited from a mixture of backgrounds – some operatic and others musical theatre trained – and this careful balance of different vocal types is largely well judged. Of particular note, Blake Bowden and Amelia Berry, as the two naïve young lovers Anthony Hope and Joanna, provide the perfect saccharine, sentimental counterpoint to the otherwise savage narrative, and Kanen Breen as the Beadle strikes an impeccable balance of vocal accomplishment, comic flare and pantomime villainy.

(Photo: Jeff Busby)

But of course the success of this show is firmly pinned to the two leading roles, in this instance Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the barber Sweeney Todd and Antoinette Halloran as the dastardly but nonetheless endearing Mrs Lovett. Rhodes is perhaps Australia’s best-credentialed cross-over artist, having branched out beyond his operatic roots with highly praised performances in musicals such as South Pacific and The King and I. However despite the calibre of his pedigree Rhodes’ account of Todd was frustratingly inert. This role is a complex combination of rage, regret, sorrow and desperation, but Rhodes confines the emotional breadth of his performance to a very limited spectrum. The coup de théâtre of the show, a moment that should be a devastating sucker-punch for the audience, was so matter of fact that it barely registered at all. Vocally, Rhodes is unquestionably skilled, and his rich, dusky tone was a pleasure to listen to. However occasional attempts to force some arbitrary angst into his mellifluous baritone served more to undermine his performance, and the inauthenticity of this, coupled with the disconnect between characterisation and delivery was sadly all too obvious.

Fortunately, despite this shortcoming, Antoinette Halloran’s astonishing turn as Mrs Lovett saves this production. A perfectly judged combination of bright eyed wit, cunning opportunism and lusty humour, Halloran’s Lovett is a joy to watch. Superbly acted and skilfully sung, this performance effervesced with infectious charm. Mrs Lovett is a role that has commonly been played by actors who can sing (Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone and Emma Thompson are among the most famous interpretations), but Halloran’s technical artistry is such that she was able to make the most of the music, showcasing her voice without losing any of the comic potential and drama that this role has in spades.

Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd comes very close to being great, but while it may only have a single weak link, it’s one that’s hard to ignore. As more and more opera companies turn to musicals as a way to attract new audiences this should be a cautionary tale of the specific risks of staging musical theatre: a dislocation of vocal prowess from theatrical talent can be fatal.

Victorian Opera present Sweeney Todd until 25 July.