Review: Sweeney Todd – a solid and perfectly quirky production

Never ones to shy away from a challenge, Fighting Chance Productions takes on Stephen Sondheim’s tricky Sweeney Todd with some bloody good results thanks in a large part to leads Alex McMorran and Cathy Wilmot.

Alex McMorran and Cathy Wilmot in the Fighting Chance Productions' Sweeney ToddFifteen years ago a young barber, Benjamin Barker, was sentenced to hard labour in Australia by corrupt Judge Turpin (Arne Larsen) who, lusting after Barker’s wife, wanted him out of the way.  Now returned to London, Barker has taken on the alias Sweeney Todd (McMorran) and sets up shop to seek his revenge.  As the body count increases from Todd’s “closest shave ever” above Mrs Lovett’s (Wilmot) pie shop, the two hatch a plan to deal with the growing number of cadavers by baking the remains into her pies.

It also turns out that Todd’s daughter Johanna (Krista Gibbard), who he last saw as an infant, is now Turpin’s ward and plans to marry her.  As luck would have it though, the young sailor Anthony (Chris Harvey), whom Todd had befriended on his voyage back from Australia, has fallen deeply in love with Johanna and hatches a plan of his own to rescue her from Turpin’s clutches.

Without strong leads to take on the demands of Sondheim’s complex music and the quirkiness of the material, the potential for Sweeney Todd to be less than successful is great.  Fortunately, director Ryan Mooney has the immense abilities of McMorran and Wilmot (pictured right) to propel the story and make it such an entertaining endeavour.

McMorran is just the right amount of just-on-the-edge insane; as an example, in “By The Sea” he danced, literally and figuratively, so easily on that edge, I had chills.  Wilmot, who has proven her worth a number of times in previous Fighting Chance shows, once again proves her ample comedic skills and singing abilities – she is simply mesmerizing to watch.  Put the two together and there was no stopping them.

While McMorran and Wilmot are the definite drivers, there were also some other wonderful performances among the other cast members including both Harvey and Gibbard.  And while some of the cast may have struggled under the heavy demands of Sondheim’s music, it never took away from the production’s overall strengths.

The small seven piece band under the direction of Vashti Fairbairn does a great job, rarely overpowering the stronger singers.  And while not everyone had the necessary musical chops, the decision to not mic the actors was a solid one given its operatic tone.

Amanda Larder makes the most of her obviously small budget in creating a multi-level set from some scaffolding and her spare, stylized set pieces fit well with the tone of the story.  Setting a perfect mood, costume designer Banafsheh Tabrizi and lighting designer Graham Ockley gives us a palette of bloody reds, dark blacks and many shadows.

A solid and perfectly quirky production led by McMorran and Wilmot, Fighting Chance Productions has proven that they are definitely up to the challenge of Sweeney Todd.

With its slightly bizarre sexiness, I also think I fell in love last night … Alex and Cathy … will you marry me?

4 Out of 5 Stars Sweeney Todd
Jericho Arts Centre
13 – 30 October 2010

Tickets are $20 – $30 available online or by calling 604-224-8007, ext. 2.

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