College Senior School Musical - Sweeney Todd

April 05, 2016 at 12:19 PM

To some, the macabre, blood-soaked Sondheim classic, Sweeney Todd, may seem an odd choice for a school musical, however, once brought to the Saint Kentigern stage, there is no doubting that this is a theatre piece that raised the bar and challenged our student actors, musicians and stage crew on many levels. The production shows that challenging material can be delivered, and delivered well, when you have the right cast and the right creative team. The result is a sophisticated musical that will play out over four nights in Elliot Hall this week.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway musical has been described as a 'melting pot of Opera, Horror and British Music Hall.’ Telling a tale of betrayal and revenge in mid-19th century London, it has become one of his most popular works, but one that is notoriously difficult to produce. The score, with its dense harmonies and tricky syncopations, was a challenge to both the performers and the orchestra in this mostly ‘sung-through’ show. However, the outstanding choral programme that has developed at the College in recent years, lent itself beautifully to the operatic bent of the show, and the quality of the vocal performances throughout was testament to this.

The show follows Todd as he returns to London from life as a convict in Australia, seeking revenge against those who separated him from his wife and child, in particular the devious Judge Turpin.

Setting up with an old acquaintance, Mrs Lovett, Todd re-establishes a ‘Barber’s Tonsorial Parlour’ above Lovett’s struggling pie shop and proceeds to work a plan to ‘dispose’ of the Judge and those associated with him.  Lovett and Todd forge a path of devastation in pursuit of their goal, inadvertently increasing the popularity of Mrs Lovett’s pies - as Todd’s victims become fresh ingredients, boosting sales! 

The cast was selected through an extensive audition process at the end of last year, with much deliberation given to casting of the lead roles. Sam Elliot played an exceptionally well-crafted, light-hearted role in the 2015 musical, ‘Spamalot’ and, through merit, found himself in the title role of Todd - one which couldn't be further removed from last year’s character! As Todd, he sets out on a bitter path to avenge himself on the corrupt judge who unfairly sent him to prison, and as the path becomes more murderous, he still challenges the audience to care for him, as his account of injustice and human suffering unfolds.  Sam's brooding dialogue and cleverly constructed delivery of a huge range of style changes helped him deliver a role with a maturity belying his youth. 

Emily Young's pedigree as a quality singer, substantiated by her place in the New Zealand Secondary Student's Choir, made her a perfect candidate to deliver the biggest role in the show - that of Mrs Lovett.  Lovett's dark, selfish, deceptive, yet outwardly fun-loving and caring persona was beautifully portrayed by Emily, and her interactions with Sweeney were a pivotal part in the success of the show.

Putting aside the shock of discovering Todd’s first murder victim, Mrs Lovett is quick to spot an opportunity to both hide her tenant’s murderous crimes and support her business. Thus, as quick as the victims were dispatched, her meat pies were stuffed! In their roles, Emily and Sam team together to sing ‘A little Priest;’ a moment of black humour in which they use puns to describe the attributes of various pies based on the vocations of their main ingredients – they are both terrifying and terrific in their delivery!

Surrounding Lovett and Todd were a principal cast brimming with talent and a very high degree of musical maturity.  The stunning voices of both Olivia Nobbs (Johanna) and Luca Heard (Anthony) complemented each other beautifully as the pair wound their way through the impending catastrophe unfolding around them - to be the only characters to walk away from the unscathed! 

The power of Brayden Robinson's Judge Turpin, both vocally and theatrically, was expertly supported by the somewhat dithery and lecherous portrayal by Nicholas Allen of Beadle Bamford. Sid Chand - previous winner of the New Zealand Aria competition - delivered the cameo role of Pirelli with the confidence and panache required of the role, whilst the wayward and ultimately murderous temperament of his sidekick, Tobias, was superbly delivered by one of the College's most experienced tenors, Liam Braithwaite.  Rounding out the principal leads was Jaymee Brearley whose powerful theatre voice superbly delivered the exceptionally demanding role of the tormented beggar woman who aimlessly wanders the streets of London – and ends up becoming the focus of the show’s torrid ending.

The plot is undoubtedly grisly, and the set, lighting and costuming played a huge part in setting the tone of the show. Keeping true to the Broadway version, the remarkable set design featured a 6 metre automated revolve – both a challenge to build and work with during the early blocking rehearsals. An equal challenge was creating a mechanical chair to dispose of Todd’s victims directly down a chute into the bake house! The biggest challenge of all, however, was the ghoulish murder scenes themselves, as Todd’s barbering skills cleanly dispatched victim after victim. Let’s just say there was ‘gore’ – and plenty of it!

Having seen the show, the question left hanging is, ‘Pie anyone?!’

Our thanks to Head of Music, Mr Ross Gerritsen, who had the vision to bring the ‘parts’ together as one; Director and Head of Drama, Ms Emma Bishop, who directed the onstage action and designed the costumes and lighting; Assistant Musical Director, Mr Lachlan Craig, for vocal training; and the lighting and sound teams under the direction of Mr Glen Mortensen, who skilfully programmed and executed the technical aspects to make this a truly magical night of musical theatre.

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