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Sweeney Todd musical review: Hamilton production well executed with exciting set

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Trish Marsden (Mrs Lovett) and Cam Strother (Sweeney Todd). Photo / Kerry Blakeney-Williams

What: Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, presented by Hamilton Musical Theatre

When: now until May 25

Where: Riverlea Theatre


Reviewed by Cate Prestidge

Hamilton Musical Theatre’s latest production is the dynamic and challenging Sondheim show Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

From the outset, the creative team of director Greg Hack, musical director Kelly Petersen and choreographer Lauren Empson has worked some magic and filled the Riverlea stage with an exciting set, focused performers, assured musical delivery and lively movement.

Many will have an impression of the show as a demonic barber, wielding his lethal cut-throat razor, and we feel natural horror at the grisly outcome for those despatched – but the plot is far more nuanced. It involves deep wrongs, cruelty and banishment, the taking of innocence, young love, madness, power, business and revenge.

The synopsis is outlined well in the programme, and it’s worth a quick read if you’re unfamiliar with the initial premise. The music carries a lot of the narrative and while the leads and chorus are strong, occasionally the lyrics in this tightly packed musical score are not as clear, so a quick peruse before you start will help.

Cam Strother as Sweeney Todd gives a polished performance straight from the opening scene. It’s hard to believe this is Strother’s first time in musical theatre, although his long experience in professional voice work overseas shines through as he has command of the lyrics, expression and tone of the often-complex Sondheim songs.

At the other end, with a 40-year career in theatre, is Trish Marsden as Mrs Lovett. Marsden is an absolute highlight, fully across the multi-faceted Lovett as she swings from desperation to optimism, from moments of assumed romance to, well, the shady business of the pies. Her experience, along with excellent supportive direction, helps drive the many scenes between the two leads in a really satisfying way.

Sean Hapi as Tobias. Photo / Kerry Blakeney-Williams
Sean Hapi as Tobias. Photo / Kerry Blakeney-Williams

Charlotte Menhennet brings sweetness and heart to the important role of Johanna. She has some emotional scenes and she paces these well and with good control. Alongside her is Seamas Eade as Todd’s seafaring companion Anthony, who also falls head over heels for Johanna. Eade and Menhennet are very plausible together and both their solos and duets are beautifully done. Eade’s voice was excellent in Johanna, bringing an earnest love to the character.

At the less savoury end is stage veteran Mike Williams who appears to relish the role of villain, Judge Turpin. Turpin is a detestable character and his act of brutality towards Benjamin Barker and his wife Lucy is the driving force that leads Benjamin to return later as Sweeney Todd.

In a key emotional scene, there is a hint that Turpin may be trying to be a better man as he grapples with self-control, expressed in a reprise of Johanna (Mea Culpa). Williams is very good here, his expression contrasting with the innocence of Eade’s earlier version.

Shaun White brings a sly, insinuating charm as Turpin’s ‘muscle’ Beadle with his threats and violence wrapped in a softly spoken package…until they’re not.

I really enjoyed Sean Hapi as Tobias and Richard Goodson as Pirelli as they spruik ‘Pirelli’s Magic Elixir’ in a lovely scene with lots of physical comedy. Hapi has a lot to do as Tobias becomes increasingly enmeshed in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop and he shines as he shows the changes in the character.

Charlotte Menhennet (Johanna) and Seamus Eade (Antony). Photo / Kerry Blakeney-Williams
Charlotte Menhennet (Johanna) and Seamus Eade (Antony). Photo / Kerry Blakeney-Williams

Alice Collins as the Beggar Woman was terrific, a good study of contrasts from soulful lament to bawdy offerings, her character becomes increasingly important as the show progresses.

The ensemble is solid, focused and in excellent voice and Empson’s choreography has them creating some very strong visual moments. I encourage you to read the programme and see just how much experience is up on the stage.

Director Greg Hack had a vision for the look of this show, one that requires multiple scenes and levels, and of course, some mechanical stagecraft from the barber’s chair. He and set designer Phill Miles deserve huge credit for creating a dynamic set that covers three levels and is clever and exact in its execution.

For the squeamish, there is much of the business hinted at via lighting, cleverly designed by Guy Domett, although it’s fair to say the grisliest scene is greeted with huge enthusiasm by the audience. Experienced sound designer Mark Perry manages the tricky balance of recorded music and live action, something Petersen and rehearsal pianist Hannah Pope will have worked hard on.

I really loved the costuming by Helena Jennings, which brings a consistent Victorian style and enjoyable flourishes for some characters. Katy Woodcock’s make-up design and hair by Stef Hack was effective and well executed.

Overall, a well-executed show, with some terrific performances.

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