More than 110 students, teachers and technicians from Newtown High School of the Performing Arts (NHSPA) collaborated to recreate a brilliant and bloodcurdling tale of revenge set in Victorian-era London in a sell-out season at St George’s Hall on King Street.
Stephen Sondheim’s, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a notoriously difficult musical to perform. It requires – as NHSPA Principal Sharon Roberts points out – “a specially designed barber’s chair, a trap door, a range of razors, 19th century costumes, a massed orchestra capable of playing a complex score and versatile performers to be accomplished actors, singers and dancers”.
NHSPA’s version of Sweeney Todd, staged over six performances from March 8 to March 11, was both riveting and seamless. It carried audience members on its rollercoaster ride with verve and immediacy – revealing skills and a level of professionalism more commonly equated with seasoned performers.
Director Judith Hoddinot said she loved the challenge of bringing Sondheim’s dark classic to life and using her skills as a director and designer to bring out the best in the students.
“It has been such a fulfilling collaborative experience with the talented musicians, gifted actors and accomplished stage technicians. We have pushed our resources, staff and students to prove that we are truly a flagship performing arts high school that can tackle the most ambitious and difficult of works!”
Sweeney Todd is the sad and unsettling story of Benjamin Barker, a barber who returns home to London’s Fleet Street after 15 years of exile to reunite with his wife and daughter. Instead, Sweeney Todd (as Barker has renamed himself) is confronted by loss and despair and seeks revenge on the corrupt judge who ruined his life. When retribution eludes him, Sweeney becomes ruthlessly violent, murdering as many people as he can. His business associate Mrs Lovett bakes the bodies into meat pies and sells them to the unsuspecting public. Business thrives!
Tom Borbilas, with his dark eyes, stiff frame and booming bass voice, played a convincing and emotionally disturbed Sweeney Todd who’s been twisted into malignance by life’s circumstances.
Lucy de Hosson was captivating as Mrs Lovett with her clear-as-a-bell voice, music hall instincts and marvellously expressive face all pointing towards a long and fruitful (post-student) life in the theatre.
Anouk Macarthur-Mitchell as Tobias Ragg gave a spirited and nuanced performance, demonstrating an impressive shift in tone upon learning that Sweeney has been killing his customers and the pies are made of humans.
The young lovers Johanna (Maya Crisafulli) and Anthony Hope (Blake O’Mara) projected a refreshing charm and urgency, which made it even more startling when Johanna killed the owner of the Asylum where she’d been imprisoned due to her rejection of Judge Turpin’s (Fergus Harley-Macdonald’s) offer of marriage.
Adolfo Pirelli (Andrew Pieri), Beadle Bamford (Catherine Laga’aia) and the Beggar Woman (Carmen Rolfe) all played to their theatrical strengths and ensemble members helped bring the macabre story to life with strong chorus work, poignant cameos and fun moments especially during scenes set in the marketplace, pie shop and asylum.
Musical Director and Conductor, Emlyn Lewis-Jones, said Sondheim’s music sweeps players and audience “from the sweetest of joys to the depths of depravity and back again, as if lashed to Poe’s pendulum.
“From the eerie, unnerving organ prelude and the screeching factory whistle that open Sweeney Todd, we know that it’s not going to be a relaxing night of whimsy. Rather, a dangerous, dark and frightening journey of revenge and murder in 19th century industrial London.”
The 32-member orchestra included students aged from Year 8 to Year 11 along with three NHSPA Music teachers (Ynping Mak, Deborah McGowan and Philip Podreka) and a bass-playing parent (Mark Harris) all of whom mastered the complex score confidently and with textural richness.
“Dissonance, beauty of melody, unexpected harmonies and fretful metric instability feature throughout the music”, said Mr Lewis-Jones, “and I’m proud of how hard the players worked to master the musical challenges.”
The range of styles and emotional breadth conveyed through the music and songs was impressive. Pieces like “A Little Priest” was a dizzy, humorous waltz which jokes about which people would end up in the pies, including the barb that the Shepherd’s pie came with a sprinkling of “real shepherds”; “My Friend Sweeney Todd”, in which Todd is reunited with his razors, had a sinister edge to it; “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” was reprised at key moments throughout the show and each time with added fervour; “By the Sea” was a delightful duet buoyed by its jaunty swing and backed by a charming dance choreographed by Emma Bathgate-Peterson which helped diffuse the growing gloom and intensity.
The cleverness of the scenery (Production Technical Manager and Lighting Design Benjamin Turner), the excellence of the makeup and wigs (Amber Johnson), and contributions by other members of the creative team including Assistant Production Manager Dash Cole, Stage Manager Zoe Van Munster, and Assistant Director Jasper Reucassel are all worthy of mention. The P&C were also very supportive and Dominique Sweers (Teacher Librarian) made and donated the pies used in the performances and for audiences to consume at interval – moreish and delicious morsels coming with a full guarantee that no humans were harmed in their production.
Disclosure: Marjorie Lewis-Jones is married to Emlyn Lewis-Jones