It is often said that ‘pies can be wholesome’ and that ‘revenge can be sweet’, but there is nothing wholesome nor sweet about these two important ingredients in the story of Sweeney Todd.
Stephen Sondheim’s classic chiller about the vengeful ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and his pie-filling side-kick, Mrs Lovett, throws up many difficulties for those companies who are brave enough to stage it.
Yet, despite its mostly sung-through format, operatic-style and word-heavy script, this murky melodrama of a musical was ‘a piece of cake’ (or should that be ‘as easy as pie’) for the mostly teenage performers of the Belfast Voice and dance Academy.
With its nightmare scenario of repulsive revenge, rape and multiple murder, this morbid and gruesome Broadway and West End musical thriller is a tough choice for such a young cast, but thoughtful direction throughout by Nik Parks managed to make the pie story more palatable for both audiences and young performers alike, without taking away any of its horror or darkness.
Atmospheric lighting combined perfectly with the appropriately dark and fog-filled dual-level set of scaffolding and bricks to cleverly recreate its Victorian setting, boasting lots of dark and eerie corners.
Mrs Lovett’s pies became more ‘full bodied’ as Todd’s vengeful bloodlust become more relentless.
However, thanks to Musical Director, Ryan Quinn (on Piano) and his fellow musicians, Anthony Stewart (on Percussion) and Thomas Alford (on Double Bass), the normally full-bodied orchestra required for this piece was successfully replaced by this talented trio and Sondheim’s score remained suitably foreboding throughout.
Choreographer, Zoe Cleaver’s movement was generally good, especially the choreography as the song, Barber and His Wife, was brought to life.
Thankfully, the bright footlights were not overused and, therefore, were more effective when needed, especially during the ensemble’s opening number, The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, and when they were used to provide a large intimidating shadow of Todd on the back wall as he was at his most threatening.
Another notable and appropriately atmospheric lighting moment was when Todd’s barber shop was washed in blood red light.
However, not everything went quite so smoothly during the opening performance as there was a sound balance problem during the reprise of Kiss Me, some late lighting cues and some over-crowded stage right exits.
Another small criticism would be that, despite its darkness, this show should be a mix of horror and humour – So, in a show that features cannibals, lunatics and a serial killer, I would have liked to have seen more comic impact with the humorous moments to balance out the well-played darker moments.
Thankfully, none of this took too much away from an otherwise great production and the entire cast is to be congratulated on their performances and, particularly, on their singing as, vocally, this show is both demanding and challenging.
If you don’t have a great Sweeney Todd, then you don’t have a show and, in what must be his best role yet, Kyle Emerson was brilliant in the title role here.
He was morose, vengeful, intimidating, dark, brooding, violent and angry and a truly troubled and tragic Todd, while displaying impressive vocals and even that rare talent of being able to whistle a tune.
As the Cockney cook and Todd’s amoral landlady, Mrs Lovett (a role she shares with Alice Tate), Naomi Hunter was cheerful, talkative and more cold-hearted and cruel than she appears, but equally as scheming as Todd.
As Todd’s young daughter, Johanna (a role she shares with Lucy McCluskey), Olivia Davidson turned in an outstanding vocal performance, especially of the song, Green Finch and Linnet Bird, not only because the quality of her voice is way beyond her tender years, but also because of her clarity and diction in such a heavily-worded song.
What makes her performance all the more impressive is that, playing a sixteen year old, this role is often cast somewhat older, due to the role’s intense vocal requirements and Davidson is only 14 years old.
Jordan Walker also displayed good vocals and a lot of potential as the sweet-natured and trusting young sailor, Anthony Hope.
Adam Cooper’s Judge Turpin was both corrupt and cruel, while his accomplice, Beadle Bamford, played by Aaron McAnulty, was equally as immoral and Sophie Patterson’s all-seeing and ever-present Beggar Woman was suitably ragged and destitute.
All other performers were also good and the hard-working members of the ensemble did well, especially as they are given a tremendous amount of material to sing.
With so much talent on the local stage, they say that musical theatre is a ‘cut-throat’ game, but you should try to catch this production of Sweeney Todd … you’ll ‘Lovett’ … but just don’t go on your ‘Todd’!
The Belfast Voice and Dance Academy
Lyric Theatre’s Naughton Studio, Belfast
Saturday 2 & Sunday 3 September, 2017