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Sweeney Todd

Date

16th January 2018

Society

Cambridge Operatic Society

Venue

The Arts Theatre Cambridge

Type of Production

Musical

Director

Chris Cuming

Musical Director

James Harvey

Choreographer

Chris Cuming

Report

Author: Richard Fitt & Leigh Smith

INITIAL NOTE: This is my second guest review of a CaOS production, having seen last year’s production of Annie I was very much looking forward to Sweeney Todd. For this review I was accompanied by the potential assistant rep for District 2, Leigh Smith, whose credentials are more musical than mine and, as I was leaving for a weekend trip abroad early the following morning, I asked him to write his own show report in my absence. As I concur with his remarks I simply present his report with my own additions at the end – Richard Fitt 

Having visited the Cambridge Arts Theatre some years ago with vivid memories of just how good a venue it is, I was looking forward to visiting again to see this production of Sweeney Todd. 

This being my first time seeing a CAOS show, I was excited.  However as I waited at the box office to get my tickets, my excitement also became tinged with worry for the society. I have seen Sweeney staged by many amateur groups and indeed professionally to varying quality due to Sondheim's’ clever and complex score and challenging staging requirements. However, it was eminently clear by the end of the first number that my worry was misplaced and that this stellar cast were more than capable of the job in hand. 

Director Chris Cuming and ensemble should be commended as a whole for their vision and focus throughout. Cast being responsible for scene changes can often be distracting, but if a director does make the cast part of changes, they must ensure that their casts focus is directed on the action happening on stage, making the whole process organic, seamless and a non intrusive process. This was achieved and with professional slickness. They had been clearly well drilled. 

Musical director, James Harvey should be congratulated on a stunning job with his ensemble. Harmonies were crisp, with the right amount of attack and diction was excellent. Even when the ensemble were broken down into smaller groups, you could tell that this was a company who had lead quality vocalists in its ensemble. Dynamics were spot on and brought the score to life.  Much the same can be said of his impressive orchestra. A rarity to have such a full sound when budgets often curtail other groups from being able to sustain such a large ensemble of players.  

I would however offer my opinion that part of the role of a musical director is to engage with his lead actors to work on character just as much as the director might. The ability to tell the story through song can be challenging and being able to work with an individual to work out where to hold back, where to pull and look at the arc of the number is so important and I feel there were times in one or two numbers this was lacking. 

Sweeney Todd played by Matt Wilkinson was simply stunning. Vocally on point and very much in command of the stage. His epiphany was delivered excellently and tempered to perfection. It’s often over done and rather obvious but not in this case. An excellent actor on top of his game, performing one of the most challenging pieces there is. Superb. 

Trenetta Jones played Mrs Lovett with excellent comedy timing and a fine singing voice. I was a little distracted however with her cockney accent which slipped occasionally and on balance I wonder if the accent was needed at all when the majority of the cast didn’t have one. That aside, she was the perfect match for Sweeney and was on fine form. 

Anthony, played by the baby faced Dan Lane had the perfect look for the love struck young sailor. He has a fantastic vocal, however, as mentioned above, this young man would have benefitted from some musical direction in terms of how to approach a number; for instance  ‘Joanna’ – his main song. Whilst he was note perfect, the dynamics were often very loud, when in my opinion, the song is in fact a love song which calls for the vocal to be floated and brought to a crescendo naturally (working out the arc of the piece). That being said, his acting was spot on and facial expressions and physicality was excellent. 

Joanna was played by Alex Elford who had an excellent soprano voice, however one must be careful not to lose diction when singing at the top of her range. However, her ‘Green Finch’ was lovely, pure and perfectly crisp.

Other notable mentions must go to Judge Turpin, played by James Warbrick who displayed just the right amount of creepy letch like qualities towards Joanna. His voice entwined beautifully with Sweeney’s during Pretty Women. The Beadle was played by Sam Fuller . His rich voice underpinned the score with his interjections and his acting was subtle and comedic in good measure – particularly at the Parlour Organ! Adolfo Pirelli played by Agustin Dal Lago had the perfect and consistent Italian accent the part requires however, I feel for any actor/singer to hit the notes written and I felt at times some were a little out of his range. That said, it was a valiant effort with challenging material. 

This production had two standout performances. Firstly Suzanne Emerson who played the beggar woman. It’s not easy to play ‘crazy’ or ‘drunk’ as most tend to become caricatures. This stunning actress however gave a masterclass in how to be believed in both physicality and mentality.  When you put that together with a near perfect vocal, you have something very special indeed. Well done! 

Secondly and maybe I should add that this was a ‘superstar performance’ was the young and super impressive Ben Lewis who played Tobias. I have never, outside of professional theatre seen a youth performer deliver such as this future star did. His vocal was phenomenal and not only note perfect, but timing was perfect which is no mean feat when approaching Sondheim. This young man showed maturity beyond his years and I can only hope that he continues on his journey within the performing arts as a bright future would await. Not only did you steal scenes young man, you stole the show! 

I must mention the lighting design. This production was enhanced by the lighting design of Alan Morgan. They clearly understood the vision of the director and knew exactly how to make it come to life. I can not stress enough how good the lighting made this production look and feel like a professional affair. Cueing was spot on and all the actors found their marks with ease.  Well done indeed! 

In closing, I was utterly impressed by this company who did not shy away from this challenging piece and quite frankly, why should they when they can produce the goods such as they did. From the costumes, make up, props and set to direction, understanding and execution, this production team  just got everything right. I particularly liked the symbolic way in which people were killed (lack of blood, lighting change and a haunting exhale of breath) - simplistic yet impactful.  A huge congratulation to all involved and I look forward to seeing more from you in the future.
- Leigh Smith

My own addition comments to Leigh’s would be mainly to the production crew. Firstly, Director Chris Cumming is first and foremost a choreographer, and it certainly shows. His consummate skill is apparent from start to finish, with some very original dance routines, to the choreographed like entrances of almost every actor, particularly well emphasised in conjunction with the stunning light plot. The company itself was drilled to perfection and a class outfit. And the pace was relentless.

My pet hate with amateur musical productions is underscoring. Rarely do you hear the actors’ speeches over the top of a live orchestra. Scott Smith-Andrews has to be congratulated on one of the finest sound balances I have ever heard on an amateur stage, it was absolutely crystal and I was, probably for the first time ever, able to hear every word during the underscoring. A rare experience. Thank you!  

The costume department under Costume Mistress Liz Milway had certainly put in some hard work with a perfect array of authentic period costumes. And it would be remiss not to mention that splendid wig for Tobias. Make-up by Emma Sampford was wonderful, especially on Sweeney himself, complimented with the shadowy lighting plot it really did send shivers down your spine at times. 

The set itself, which was mainly hired was superb. I was told however that apparently on delivery it had some serious issues with dimensions and needed a lot unexpected and unplanned last-minute creativity from CaOS, the Director and the Penguins in order to get the scenery up and functioning as they wanted. So congratulations to all who contributed to the complex build and particularly The Penguin Club. The end result was well worth it!

Leigh and I certainly enjoyed our night out, it’s a very difficult show to do well and CaOS certainly stepped up to the mark with this one. We can only hope to be invited to guest review again in the future.