Skip to main content Skip to footer site map



Read our review!


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond

WITCH Theatre, Te Auaha, 30 June - 4 July 2021

Reviewed by Lindsey Rusling

Audiences in Wellington were holding their breath to see if, much-anticipated, WITCH Music Theatre's version of Sondheim's musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street would open when planned due to a change in COVID Alert Levels in the week prior. After the all-clear came just hours before opening, a relieved and excited audience venture out into a chilly, winter's evening for a demented night of entertainment.

WITCH Music Theatre already has a reputation for delivering edgy, high-quality productions with dark themes and its fan-base is out in force to support the newest spine-tingling and twisted musical offering. Sweeney Todd is based on a Victorian penny dreadful series and London urban legend about a revenge-seeking barber who kills customers for his partner-in-crime, Mrs Lovett, to bake into meat pies.

On entering the theatre, the overall production concept is crystal clear - Ben Emerson and his team have put thought into detailed symbolism throughout. As someone with vivid memories of a visit to an abattoir at the age of five, the space is very reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. The tall, white, angular structure with a plastic strip curtain and large, industrial lamp sparkles like hosed-down tiling and the sound of dripping water, use of red lighting and swirling haze trapped behind the transparent shreds is strikingly sinister. Representing the theme of social hierarchy, the structure dwarfs the working cast already in place, creepily talking in whispers, overseen by supervisors and kneeling, slowly mopping the floor adding to the unease, obligatory menace and the mood of arbitrary class suppression.

We know we're in for a hell of a ride when the ensemble, acting as a Greek Chorus, saunter through the atmospheric side and up-lighting and blow our socks off with a powerful rendition of the opening number: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Each character is individualistic and quirky, supported by anachronistic costume in black and white. Johanna, for example, is dressed in a white, poodle skirt, white fluffy top and blonde ponytail reminiscent of the innocence of the 1950s with white, Victorian-style ankle boots while others in the cast are more 1940s in style. Costuming here creates an effective layer of curiosity within the production without restricting the musical to one era. The only exception is the Beggar Woman whose getup doesn't seem to thoroughly support her physical characterisation.

We are used to seeing a lot of the ensemble as lead performers in their own right and all are focused, intense and believable throughout. Ensemble singing is vocally stunning and choreography is slick and eerie with impressive and exciting chorus of movement. The slow motion and facials in God! That's Good! and the asylum scene were outstanding.

Enter Sweeney Todd, a bitter, brooding anti-hero who becomes a serial killer while seeking revenge against Judge Turpin for the death of his wife and the loss of his daughter. Chris Crowe is an impeccable choice; seething and magnetic, his vocal is rich and commanding and he handles Sondheim's tricksy music and lyrics with poise. WITCH's Todd is attractive, intense and easily engenders compassion despite the horror. Crowe's straight man is balanced by the suitably scheming Mrs Lovett (Vanessa Stacey). Stacey is a more realistic and chilling Lovett than the usual dotty, Music Hall version and her vocal is excellent considering she is still recovering from sickness. Stacey's comedic timing is charming and A Little Priest with Crowe a delight, a little more movement, though, could have helped add support to By The Sea.

Anthony Hope (Zane Berghuis) is beautifully earnest and sweet with a lush tone that makes Johanna a highlight and his love interest is the equally besotted Johanna Barker (Olivia Stewart) whose soaring high notes are rendered effortlessly in Green Finch and Linnet Bird. Frankie Leota performs a powerhouse vocal throughout as the Beggar Woman while Thomas Barker is imposing and authoritative as the wicked, flagellating Judge Turpin. Jthan Morgan is hilarious and scene-stealing as the unctuous Beadle with a fabulously nasal falsetto.

Jared Pallesen is a standout as Tobias Ragg, altering the traditional child role to one of an intellectually challenged, innocent and viciously loyal, young man he is reminiscent of a young Joel Grey. Not While I'm Around with Stacey was simply exquisite and a real "moment" in the show. Rounding out the main characters is a mellifluous and flamboyant Ben Paterson as the larger-then-life Adolfo Pirelli.

Sondheim is the true star of this show and the complexity and vicious vitality of the music, taut harmonies and lyrics is handled with flair and skill by the unrivalled talents of Mark W Dorrell and his band of expert musicians who are visible side-stage. The music is hair-raising and flawless under Dorrell's direction and Wellington is lucky to have someone of his calibre and professional experience within our Musical Theatre community.

WITCH's Sweeney Todd is a darkly comic, macabre tale of love and retribution - a tasty melodramatic treat of morality, madness and meat that brandishes the musical talent in Wellington like a hot pie on a cold day. God! That's Good! I want more...

Related Articles View More New Zealand Stories

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes & More

From This Author Lindsey Rusling