Anthony Warlow and Gina Riley team up for this murderous musical that struggles to shine in a less-than-ideal venue
Sondheim is hard. Ask anybody who knows anything about musical theatre and they’ll tell you that the illustrious composer – known on Broadway as “God” – writes scores that are fiendishly complex, both dramatically and musically. Unlike some writers, there’s no way to just go on autopilot and put a wash of a single mood over one of his songs – in almost every piece, characters are coming to realisations, making decisions and attempting to influence each other in time with the music, full of irregular time signatures and unusual melodic lines.
When it works, the rewards are immense.
On paper, the pairing of musical theatre star Anthony Warlow as the demon barber, Sweeney Todd, and comedy specialist Gina Riley as Mrs Lovett looks great. He’s a magnificent singer with a taste for the macabre and the perfect person to play the murderous barber hellbent on revenge. She’s a magnificent performer with a decent voice and the ability to take comedy to dark places, which makes her an obvious choice for Sweeney’s downstairs neighbour who owns a pie shop and finds an unsavoury use for the remains of Sweeney’s victims.
But this is a production that offers neither the sort of support they’d need to thrive in these roles and, on opening night in Sydney, felt far from ready. If you’d paid the top ticket price of $224, you’d be justified in expecting a little more polish.
The biggest problem that neither the producers nor director Theresa Borg have managed to overcome is the venue. Sydney has a shortage of large theatres, but the Darling Harbour Theatre at the International Convention Centre has all the soul of a large convention centre lecture hall – because that’s exactly what it is. Charlotte Lane’s set – which is a ramshackle, abandoned Victorian mansion – feels all too literal and out of place in the venue.
But the actual logistics of performing here are where the problems really start. Firstly, it seems that the performers are having enormous difficulty hearing the orchestra and each other. Conductor Vanessa Scammell leads an undeniably talented team but the opening night performance was full of stuff-ups with the cast falling out of sync with the orchestra. Secondly, there’s no lockout at the venue, which meant people were coming and going throughout the entire performance. This mightn’t be the most distracting thing in the world were it not for the fact that the entrances and exits to the theatre are right next to the stage, and they’re lit in such a way that every person who passes through casts a six-metre-high shadow on the wall beside the stage. Don’t even get us started on the banging (outside fireworks, we think?) that we could hear throughout the first 20 minutes of the performance.
This will be a better show if these issues can be ironed out – and it will undoubtedly be a better show when it plays Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne later this month. But it still lacks the nuance and discipline that you need to make Sondheim really zing. There’s little chemistry between the actors (although Warlow and Riley manage to conjure up some for a delightful take on ‘A Little Priest’), who have wildly inconsistent playing styles.
It’s difficult to understand what Borg’s vision for this production actually is. It uses a séance, summoning Sweeney from the grave, as its framing device, adding nothing to the piece apart from an additional layer of spooky, which fails to fire in this venue. There’s a suggestion in Borg’s director’s note that she wanted to give the women of this story more prominence, but she curiously leans into every trope the characters are built from; Johanna is played as a two-dimensional virginal, innocent ingenue.
Borg hasn’t managed to bring everybody onto the same page, and it feels like many of the performers could be in entirely different productions. Jonathan Hickey is excellent as Tobias, singing gorgeously and finding the right balance between darkness and comedic touches of the character, while Daniel Sumegi is an imposing Judge Turpin. But Genevieve Kingsford performs Johanna as though she’s in a silent movie with constant melodramatic gesturing, while Anton Berezin camps up Beadle Bamford to an absurd degree. Debra Byrne also slathers on the melodrama, which generally works well for her role as the beggar woman, but she has a weird tendency to enunciate the unimportant stuff perfectly but mumble over key lines.
In the midst of all this, Riley looks scared and lost. She warmed up as the performance progressed and scored some decent laughs, but her discomfort with the music was clear, particularly in her introductory number ‘Worst Pies in London’. Warlow manages to stay on a steady path and has crafted a physicality and vocal performance that speaks volumes of the character’s pain and distress. It’s a wonderful display of technique, even if you get the sense that he isn’t drawing from a deep well of emotion. And frankly, maybe he just isn’t able to, given the problems surrounding him.
Which is what makes this production all the more disappointing: it’s good material with good and talented people, but it diminishes both at every turn. Sondheim is hard, but it shouldn’t be such hard work for the audience.
Average User Rating
2 / 5
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Absolutely spot on review - I felt so sorry for the conductor trying to keep everybody together... Surely these issues of timing (among others) would have been sorted out in rehearsals?! Was really disheartening dropping $350 for two tickets (on my 30th birthday of all days!) to walk away feeling pretty disheartened at the performance. Was far from what we were expecting. A real shame as it's a favourite of mine. 2 stars out of 5 is bang on.