Wednesday 20 February 2019

Light Opera goes dark with 'Todd'

George Lawlor as Pirelli and Tony Carty as Sweeney Todd
George Lawlor as Pirelli and Tony Carty as Sweeney Todd
The chorus on stage at the National Opera House

Months of rehearsals came to fruition last week when Wexford Light Opera Society took to the stage of the National Opera House with their production of 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street', a dark and twisted tale of revenge and madness.

This is the group's second production of the musical, the first being in 2005, and there is always an added challenge to performing something that people may remember from the first time around. From my memory, this version of it certainly ratchets up the gothic darkness.

The story is a relatively simple one - Sweeney Todd returns from a wrongful imprisonment, hell bent on killing Judge Turpin, the man who violated his wife Lucy and took their daughter Johanna as his ward. Teaming up with Mrs Lovett, who harbours secrets of her own, his campaign of destruction ensues.

Across the board, the cast is strong with new faces shining. Brendan Long is fresh-faced as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who falls in love with Johanna. Ciara Cullinane, as the aforementioned Johanna, is one of Wexford's exceptional young talents who continues to build an impressive repertoire of performances and shows off her vocal talents here in what are difficult, tongue-twisting numbers.

John Crosbie is imposing as Judge Turpin. There are a few scenes that are dark to the point of uncomfortable and he is central to most of them. Mick Farrell as his aide, Beadle Bamford is suitably sneering, while Antonia Close as the beggar woman develops nicely from the point of madness to shocked realisation.

George Lawlor gets probably the most laughs of the night as Pirelli, sporting a ludicrous Italian accent, and an even more ludicrous costume that makes him look like an understudy for the Go Compare ad! His scenes are welcome comic relief in the long first half.

Catherine 'Biddy' Walsh enjoys herself immensely as the struggling but absurdly enterprising pie shop owner. Not only do we get to see Biddy's legendary comedic talent, but also her dramatic depth, particularly in her scenes with Tobias which are filled with motherlike warmth, something that's impressive when you consider the fact that she is one half of a sinister cottage industry that's turning people into pies!

Tony Carty exudes menace in the role of Sweeney Todd right from the beginning. Yet, we can see how haunted he is as he recalls the story of his family and is reunited with his blades. He slices and dices with gusto, as he bounds towards the inevitable bloody end.

For me, however, it was another newcomer, Michael O'Gorman, who stole the show as the simple but kind-hearted Tobias Ragg who, following the disposal of his former boss Pirelli, takes on a role in Mrs Lovett's pie shop, forging a special bond with her. His rendition of 'Not While I'm Around' is heartwrenchingly poignant while his descent into madness, both physically and vocally, is astonishingly impactful.

I heard some people, afterwards, complimenting 'Sweeney Todd' without necessarily liking the show itself, which I believe does have flaws in the source material. It feels somewhat disjointed, as if rushing towards its inevitable ending with no time to spare. Personally, I also feel that it lacks a big musical number to anchor it on - 'The Ballad of Sweeney Todd' repeats throughout but it doesn't grab an audience the way, say 'This is the Moment' from 'Jekyll and Hyde' (a similarly dark and gritty offering) does.

But, source flaws aside, WLOS has delivered another finely tuned production of a gritty thriller that has seen the group go darker than it ever has before and that, given that the inclination with musical theatre is to lighten rather than darken, has to be greatly applauded.

Wexford People

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