Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Slicing a Classical Vein

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Slicing a Classical Vein

Article excerpt

New Zealand Sweeney is company's initial foray into Sondheim

Levin is a small town about 90 kilometers north of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The Levin Performing Arts Society puts on three musicals annually. Previous productions over its 40-year history have included most of the major Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, as well as My Fair Lady and Rent.

The company recently made its first foray into Sondheim with a production of Sweeney Todd. The Levin Performing Arts Centre is a converted milk factory. The space has been configured as a basic proscenium theatre, with two high side platforms where otherwise there would be dress circle boxes, one of which neatly became Johanna's window. There is some tiered seating, but most of the auditorium is given over to cabaret-theatre tables that were often filled during the production's May 2009 run.

The artistic director of the Society and director of Sweeney, Alex Gilchrist, has many years' experience in New Zealand theatre, including spells in charge of a professional theatre in Dunedin. He has a particular interest in musical theatre and has already directed shows such as The King and I and The Full Monty for the Levin group. In recent years, the Society has looked more to rock-style musicals (such as Rent). Gilchrist wanted something in a more classical vein. As he loves Sondheim and Sweeney Todd in particular, the choice was easy. And, of course, Sweeney also set the company a challenging and rewarding task.

The stage set included a gantry across the back, accommodating the several occasions when multiple events appear simultaneously. The main item of stage furniture was a large cube on wheels, rotated to show backdrops for various rooms: the pie shop, the parlor and the bakehouse. Other props, such as Pirelli's booth, were wheeled on as necessary. With the inclusion of the high side platforms, the complex requirements of the staging were easily and fluidly addressed.

The performers were miked, causing some problems in crowd scenes. There were a few moments when you realized how truly challenging it is to match Sondheim's lyrics to Sondheim's rhythms. Stephanie Greenslade as Mrs. Lovett recovered from nerves in the complex "Worst Pies in London" and was clearly in her element as the nouveau riche businesswoman of Act II. …

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