Stuart Maunder, Artistic Director of State Opera of South Australia, has brought another of his earlier productions to the Adelaide stage – and Sweeney Todd was well worth the wait. It fitted beautifully into the enlarged and renovated Her Majesty’s Theatre which Limelight described as now “one of the finest theatres of the world”. It is the same theatre, then called the Opera Theatre, where Sweeney Todd had its Australian premiere in 1987.

Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd) and Adam Goodburn (Pirelli)
© Soda Street Productions

As a musical, Sweeney Todd demands characters with strong personalities who can engage. (I will never forget Angela Lansbury’s powerful Mrs Lovett of 40 years ago). As an opera, Sweeney Todd demands quality and versatility of voice. It reveals a new dimension of the work. Sondheim's creation is officially classified as a “musical thriller”, for thrill it certainly does, and has become common among the repertoires of opera companies around the world.

Maunder's dynamic, engrossing production has no doubt been tweaked a bit over the six years it has been performing across Australia and New Zealand. Its energy was palpable! With principals Ben Mingay and Antoinette Halloran in their sixth year with this production, they have earned the right to call these roles their own. Clever lighting effects from Philip Lethlean followed the action around the stage. Bold rays of teal light fanning across the stage covered scene changes, and an imaginative ability to spot where the action was, even at times to highlight just the faces of the chorus, allowed a dark, brooding atmosphere to pervade Roger Kirk’s bold sets, contributing to the horror and London gloom of the work.

Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd)
© Soda Street Productions

With a rich, resonant baritone, Mingay’s Sweeney was the star of the night, a master of Sondheim’s musical style and intriguing dialogue rhythms. Bringing a powerful presence, he commanded with ease, yet was capable of gentleness and intimacy as when caressing his case of razors (“my lucky friends”), raising the largest and declaring “my right arm is complete again”. Music blared forth from both organ and orchestra as ‘a scalding spot’ struck the razor, and reflected light from the blade dazzled the audience. Gentle, too, when he sang of his lost wife, “his reason and his life”. Mingay’s Sweeney started with an overpowering desire for revenge and vengeance that, after missing his chance with Judge Turpin, morphed into an insane obsession to cut the throats of as many as he could. Yet Mingay was endearing singing “Pretty Women” and full of pathos in “Barber and His Wife”.

Halloran’s Mrs Lovett was clearly a nasty piece of work, or at least became so once her business began to prosper as the supply of meat for her pies was secured. No longer making “the worst pies in London”, she saw a future in life by the sea with Mr T. But the more she came on to him, the colder his reaction. Halloran sang with an urgency in her voice, not always assisted by the microphone she wore. She was at her best in the pie duet with Mingay (“Have a little priest”) which concluded Act 1.

Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett) and Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd)
© Soda Street Productions

Mat Verevis was an endearing Tobias Ragg. Agile and energetic, he was convincing spruiking for snake oil salesman Signor Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, then for Mrs Lovett and her meat pies, but was at his best in his plaintive “Nothing’s gonna harm you”. There was a sincerity and a vulnerability in the genuineness he conveyed. Many years of great singing made Douglas McNicol’s dramatic bass-baritone interpretation of cold and calculatingly evil Judge Turpin so nasty. Excellent in mastering the Sondheim style, he also displayed acting versatility, especially when emerging from the barber’s-chair chute. His “Pretty Women” duet while sitting in Sweeney’s chair one of the rich highlights of the evening.

Nicholas Cannon portrayed a believable Anthony Hope, the young sailor, who befriended Sweeney and became smitten by Johanna, cruelly confined like a bird in a cage. Cannon conveyed an Anthony who was always sincere. He had the ability to highlight a word in a song and empower it with meaning. His “I feel you, Johanna” as it morphed into “I’ll steal you, Johanna” one of the most moving moments of the night.

State Opera of South Australia Chorus in Sweeney Todd
© Soda Street Productions

Desiree Frahn’s Johanna disappointed. I could not feel any warmth or trust as she responded to Anthony’s attentions. She was at her best with her initial “Green finch and linnet bird”. No disappointment in the brilliant ensemble, cleverly choreographed to make maximum impact. Their diction was clear and precise, their voices compelling, their role adding commentary and linking the scenes so effective.

This Sweeney Todd has legs and deserves the widest possible audience.

****1