It is always a little unnerving to go to see a show that you are very familiar with. How will it compare with previous productions? Does the company have the resources in terms of cast, crew and staging to do the production justice? I am happy to report that in the case of Oxford Operatic Society's current production of Stephen Sondheim's epic musical Sweeney Todd, no such worries were necessary.
As a confirmed Sondheim aficionado, I had high expectations of this production (my fifth to date) and I was not disappointed. From the discordant opening notes of the overture I was captivated and when at the close of the opening number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, I knew that we were in for a great night.
The classic tale of the "Demon Barber" and his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, was skilfully told by this company of non-professional performers. Alex Williams as our eponymous central character demonstrated excellent vocal skills and lent Sweeney an air of brooding vengefulness which developed into resentful malice as the piece developed. Clare Dovey-Wilson's Lovett ably blurred the lines between comic simpleton and heartless villainess as she manipulates Sweeney into a macabre pact which will assuage his need for bloody vengeance and allow her the wealth and social advantage she so clearly craves.
Strong supporting performances were provided by Guy Grimsley as the orphaned boy Toby, taken in by Mrs Lovett after his master is slain by Sweeney, and by Tim Younger and Simon Tavener, as Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford respectively, the former a powerful archetypal villain supported in his endeavours by his obsequious foil the Beadle.
The orchestra was exceptional; only on occasion did I feel that the orchestration was a little too sprightly during some of the more melancholy musical numbers - for example Sweeney's "A Barber and his Wife". Vocally the cast were very strong, which is no small thing as Songheim's score is notoriously difficult.
The ensemble sections were expertly choreographed, particularly the masked ball, the climax of which was significantly chilling. My only slight criticism would be of the choice to dress the chorus in black, rather than period dress. I found the device more than a little distracting and was not always certain what effect the director was aiming for - although I have to admit to enjoying their involvement during "By The Sea".
All in all, I was most impressed by this production and would sincerely recommend it as a great evening out at the theatre. The show runs until Saturday 16th November.