Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street**** (London Coliseum)

Posted: April 2, 2015 in Music, Theatre

sweeney todd enoAnd the award for adaptability goes to…..Sweeney Todd. From traditional theatres to pubs and a pie shop, it is a show that pops up everywhere with increasing regularity – not bad when the original London production at Drury Lane flopped. This “semi staged” concert version, co-produced by English National Opera, originates from a New York Philharmonic production last year, endorsing the view held by many that this so called “musical” is in fact an opera and one of a pretty high standing. People are entitled to dislike it because of its excessive gore and over the top melodrama, but few can fail to be in awe of its astonishing virtuosity, its seamless fusion of book (Hugh Wheeler), lyrics and music (both Stephen Sondheim). The intention in giving a concert performance of a musical is, one assumes, to heighten the impact of the music, which can only be achieved by taking the emphasis away from the drama. Yet, in this case, the question must be asked as to why anyone would want to pick apart the different components of a work that is so perfect as a whole. It is a little like filleting a fish – plenty of tasty bites still to savour, but nothing left to hold it together. Director Lonny Price attempts an early denial of this being a concert performance by casting aside music stands and floral decorations and getting the singers to shed their evening attire to reveal period costumes. He also produces several imaginative flourishes throughout the evening, trying to show the staging as more than “semi”, but, for all that, a concert performance is what, in essence, his production remains. The ENO orchestra (conductor David Charles Abell) is centre stage in front of a backcloth onto which images, mostly graffiti, are projected and the performance takes place in front of and, on an elevated platform, amongst them. If absence of dramatic intensity and involvement in the story are the big losses of this staging, the wonderful sound made by a full orchestra and a near 30-strong chorus is the big plus, City on Fire being particularly thrilling. Sondheim’s incomparable score can seldom have been given so lush a treatment. Bryn Terfel has been singing the role of Sweeney for several years now, his rich bass-baritone voice suiting the music to perfection; vocally, his performance is definitive, but, dramatically, he is disappointingly lightweight, even amiable up to the grizzly finale. Emma Thompson follows in a long line of magnificent Mrs Lovetts and she milks the comedy as we all knew she would, but she also sings the part superbly, reminding us how great a loss to musical theatre her 30 year absence has been. Only Terfel comes from the world of opera. the other featured performers all being grounded in musicals, meaning that expectations for vocal interpretations that might be radically different from previous productions are thwarted. Matthew Seadon-Young, clean-cut and bespectacled, is a terrific Anthony; his serenading of Johanna, like Philip Quast’s harmonising with Terfel on the Pretty Women duet, is amongst several moments so blissful that they bring tears to the eyes. Katie Hall is an angelic Johanna, whilst Jack North, Rosalie Craig, Alex Gaumond and John Owen-Jones also deliver excellent performances. Reservations about concert stagings remain, but this production sets the bar pretty high for Sondheim’s Follies at the Royal Albert Hall towards the end of this month. As for Sweeney, for me it’s next stop the pie shop.

Performance date: 1 April 2015

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