Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Musical Thriller is a real bravura piece of theatre requiring a large, talented cast to perform. The musical demands are extreme, particularly for the chorus, and the dark subject matter and highly comic moments can be very difficult to balance.
Stafford and District Operatic Society tackled the score with real energy, and pinpoint precision on Sondheim’s fiendish harmonies. The opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd really set the scene for a brilliantly sung performance, with a number of solos from company members, all with excellent diction and dark foreboding character. The first appearance of the famous Dies Irae theme (Swing your razor wide, Sweeney) was suitably strident and chilling. And the chorus remained on vibrant form for the whole evening, the opening of Act 2 (God, That’s Good) being the particular stand out of the whole evening for me. Credit must clearly go to Musical Director Bill Moss and his team for the commitment and effort to perfecting Sondheim’s music.
The principal performances were all strong, with Calum Robarts leading the company well as a brooding, full voiced Sweeney. As his nemesis Judge Turpin Jonathan Down could have been a little bit more disturbing and we did miss his chilling solo Johanna, cut on this occasion. But his duet with Sweeney, Pretty Women, was full of lugubrious joy. Hannah Morris and Mark Phizacklea made an appealing young couple and there was excellent support from John Wilson as the chillingly stern Beadle, and Will Wood with an excellent cameo and she show-off Italian barber Pirelli (shame there was no Irish accent later on, though). Jessica Smith made a real impression as the Beggar Woman, and I’m glad they included her Ballad (often cut from the show). It was a real winner in this performance.
The stand out performance of the evening, as often happens with this show, came from Mrs Lovett. As Todd’s accomplice and erstwhile lover Tracey Brough was utterly convincing (worryingly so, given the nature of the character!) and in spectacular voice. With mannerisms reminiscent of Catherine Tate she brought the stage to life every time she appeared. And inspired use of props during By the Sea was a great touch.
A special mention must be given to 14 year old Joseph Straw (Tobias Ragg), who tackled Sondheim’s complex words and music like an old pro. Plaudits for the company for being brave enough to trust this difficult role to young performers (Joseph is sharing the role with 12 year old Greg Wood).
Rachel Millar’s production was efficient, with a few excellent touches. Personally speaking I thought the very basic, spare set only just worked, and the Barbers’ Shop not being above the Bakery is a problem in the final sequence when the murdered bodies are meant to immediately appear below and scare Tobias. And I did miss the shaving soap and, especially, the blood, although this bothered me less as the evening went on, and was handled sensitively. However the use of the chorus was excellent, and the unusual curtain call really worked.
Overall a brilliantly sung production of a really challenging piece of theatre. Well done to all at SDOS.
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