A Night on Fleet Street: #SweeneyToddMNL Review

Bootleg photos of the Manila production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street across the internet rendered me disconcerted over the classic Stephen Sondheim musical I know. Instead of coaches and British buildings, I saw broken vehicles in what seems to be a dilapidated establishment. For a moment I thought I will not enjoy the show because being the anglophile that I am, it was the Victorian England milieu that made Sweeney Todd appealing for me. The scenes from the Johnny Depp movie are vivid in my imagination and I was honestly just expecting a stage version of them. But to mark the 40th anniversary of the show’s Broadway debut, director Bobby Garcia had something different in mind.

In the souvenir programme, Garcia explained his vision of turning the environment of the show into some sort of a collage of various Alfred Hitchcock films. For Garcia, Hitchcock is the ‘master of suspense’ whose movies were made extra thrilling by the music of Bernard Hermann. It is interesting to note that Hermann inspired Sondheim to compose Sweeney Todd. Garcia also placed a bit of his personal story into the creative concept of the show. Instead of setting the tale of the demon barber in the streets of London, he put his characters in an abandoned parking lot where all the slitting of throats took place. Garcia said he used to go to the Manila Film Center late at night with friends when he was a teenager to share ghost stories. This concept is highly visible all throughout the show because I noticed that aside from the main characters performing right at the centre of the stage, there are people in the dark corners who are like spectators watching the events unfold. They are perhaps the representation of Garcia and his friends in an abandoned establishment, sharing their creepy stories. Except tonight, it was the demon barber of Fleet Street telling his tale.

This production is certainly a menagerie of creative talents. With the name of a Tony award winner attached on its banner, the expectation for excellence was extremely high. But the genius of the show goes beyond the stage as some talented people also made contributions in the whole spectacle. World-renowned Filipino fashion designer Rajo Laurel was in charge with costumes of the cast. I admire his dedication to modernise and deconstruct the outfits of 19th century England. The costume for each role is an extension of personality so it is impossible to imagine a certain character wear the outfit and colour of another. Mrs Lovett’s bright and tattered dresses speak so much about her loud devilish yet longing persona, while Sweeney Todd’s plain grey coat is all about his bleak and brooding identity.

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Gerard Salonga joins her sister in this production as the conductor. Together with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, they reminded people of the beauty of Sondheim’s music. The orchestration made the funny scenes extra hysterical and the killing sprees unimaginably thrilling. They have achieved the goal of the multi-awarded Broadway composer: to exaggerate human emotion and induce passion and fear at the same time.

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Jett Pangan as Sweeney Todd was a delight but I think he was not able to deliver the grit and despair his character demands. There is no question over his musicality, but I have issues with his portrayal of someone who is seeking revenge. I was expecting more in terms of obsession to slit a throat after another, but Pangan appeared too plain a man. Another frustration I have lies in Judge Turpin’s character played by Andrew Fernando. Fernando was a disaster in enunciating the lyrics of his songs, and because of this difficulty, it was impossible for him to be the villain that he supposed to be. I did not feel his sinister, which is problematic in a lot of sense because Judge Turpin is the major motivation of Sweeney Todd’s vengeance. The scene where the razor of Sweeney Todd finally touched the throat of Judge Turpin, ending the life of the man who caused his misery, was both dull and anticlimactic.19662586-1FE9-488F-8946-BA914A319604

I was impressed with the British accent of some actors and I felt like it was their way to remain in touch with the original concept of the show. The best players for this version of Sweeney Todd are the ones who successfully abandoned their real identity and became a genuine part of the tale. Nyoy Volante as Adolfo Pirelli was exceptionally good, considering the complexity of his character. He was a Filipino actor playing a British rogue character guising as an Italian barber and tooth puller. Volante made smooth shifts from one identity to another while, of course, showing off his musical prowess. After having my mind blown by his talent, I now question my choices as to why I did not watch his previous shows. He is promising because he knows when and how to give what the audience wants. His large movements were not awkward or annoying, and his comical hysteria was far from being trying-hard.

Luigi Quesada as Tobias Ragg was another genius on stage. He has one of the best accents and his voice was juvenile yet strong. I love his energy because it was necessary as his role involved a lot of running and jumping. When I first saw the cast announcement for Sweeney Todd, I thought Quesada was too mature and therefore not fitting to the role. But he managed to capture enough amount of innocence he needed to be Mrs Lovett’s good boy.

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With Tony Award Winner Lea Salonga (Mrs Lovett)

My best adulation goes to the crazy meat pie baker of London, Lea Salonga. I can write an entire book of compliments to her performance as Mrs Lovett. I believe in the performing arts, and in any profession, it is all about doing it instead of just convincing people you can. While it is expected for a Tony and Oliver Award-winner to be perfect on stage, Lea still surprises people in a way that will knock their socks off. As Mrs Lovett, her hilarity was so unexpected I had to remind myself several times that the crazy woman I am watching is the same actress who played the innocent Kim in Miss Saigon. Just like any good artist, Lea knows how to left his sophistication and Disney princess tiara at the stage door and become whatever character she is playing. She was able to deliver the tactless accent of Mrs Lovett. Even though I know she lived many years in London while doing Miss Saigon and Les Misérables, I still wonder where she got the authentic vibe of her British accent. Yet again, Lea immortalised her brand of theatre excellence on this one.

Many of Sondheim musicals are like adult fairytales about the complexity of human choices. In Into the Woods, people are reminded to be sure if what they wish is really what they want. Passion exposes the extreme actions men are willing to take in order to satisfy their obsession. Many critic claim Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s finest because it invites compassion for a murderer. Its characters are not just obsessed over getting what they want, they are also desperate to make the authorities accountable for their miseries so that ‘those above will serve those down below’. As a thrilling social commentary on the judicial system of 19th Century London, the tale of Sweeney Todd is one bloody reminder of how the barber of Fleet Street is actually less wicked than those who turned him into a demon.

Note: All the production photos featured in this article are from my personal souvenir programme. In compliance to the policy of The Theatre at Solaire, I did not take any pictures during the show.
Image may contain: 9 people, people smiling, people standing and text
Courtesy of Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group Facebook page

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