Full-throated and in fine demonic form, Sweeney Todd is a must-see

My friend: Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth) adores his blade; Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) looks on. Photograph by Val Adamson

My friend: Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth) adores his blade; Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) looks on. Photograph by Val Adamson

Drenched in blood and delicious in its unrelenting dark humour, Steven Stead’s production of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim classic that blends some of the finest traditions in vocal music, is a real achievement.

Headlined by Jonathan Roxmouth in the lead, and Charon Williams-Ros as the dreadfully fine Mrs Lovett, the production is non-stop entertainment at its very grimmest. Blending everything from a renegade barber with a sharp blade he’s not afraid to use, to rape and havoc, lunatics set free from an asylum, the grinding of human flesh to make pies for the unsuspecting community and a vortex of revenge made all the more slippery with spilled blood. But don’t be frightened or get moralistic: it’s a delicious no holds barred spoof on the horror tradition. And virtually everyone dies at the end.

But also, literally everyone shines in their roles, from the cameo performances of the ensemble cast, lending texture and energy to the depiction of the grubby grunginess of 19th century London, which is enhanced to miraculous levels by an extraordinary set, which evolves in deft timing into its various levels, leeways and channels. Like any penny dreadful of the time, there’s tales within tales, a lovely damsel in distress – Sanli Jooste – mistaken identities and lots of flagrant murder of bad guys and foolish ones, hairy men and anyone else.

Michael Richard as the totally amoral Judge Turpin who rules the community with a crooked set of values and his sidekick the Beadle (Adam Pelkowitz) form a gruesome duo and a fine nemesis for Mr Todd a.k.a. Benjamin Barker, a man nursing a grievance and holding a sharp blade for many a beard and oft a little more, a little lower.

Polished performances, fine choreography and ghoulish make up and costumes aside, the complexity of the music, the wit and coherence of the lyrics, which threads so many different reflections and opinions into the rich and glorious texture of the material draws you in and keeps you focused. The language is nimble and contemporary, vicious and hilarious.

The only drawback remains the space in relation to the bigness of the sound. Often when a solo performer is jousting vocally with the orchestra, his or her voice is lost. This is compensated for by the beautiful strengths of the ensemble cast, which lend the work the kind of wild hysteria and rich depth, it warrants.

Sweeney Todd will sweep you off your feet and make any meat pie that comes your way a little tainted with the possibility of sheer horror.

  • Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the book by Hugh Wheeler and directed by Steven Stead. It features design by Greg King (set), Neil Stuart Harris (costumes), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Tina Le Roux (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Jonathan Tunick (orchestration). It is performed by Cameron Botha, Anne-Marie Clulow, Pauline du Plessis, Germandt Geldenhuys, Earl Gregory, Sanli Jooste, Weslee Swain Lauder, Adam Pelkowitz, Michael Richard, Megan Rigby, Jonathan Roxmouth, Claire Simonis, Candice Van Litsenborgh, Jaco Van Rensburg, Charon Williams-Ros and Luciano Zuppa, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 29. <<Due to popular demand, the run of the season in Johannesburg has been extended until December 13>> Visit montecasino.co.za

Sister Act’s nuns are too dumbed down for their own good

That's her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns () Photograph by Mariola Biela.

That’s her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

Take an ensemble of the best voices in the business right now. Befrock them in an array of habits and foreground the stage musical based on the eponymous film which saw Whoopi Goldberg’s rise to popularity in the early 1990s, and what do you get? Sister Act is one of those musicals mooted as a must-see and a block buster, but the final product reeks of 1990s flaws in patronising and overwhelmingly silly dialogue and humour which causes it to drag its feet, particularly in the first half. On paper it is too good to be true – and it is.

But if you’ve made it so far, stay for the second half, because this unashamedly feel good bit of musical theatre gets so warmly into its stride that it whisks the rest of the night away and will leave you with a grin on your face.

The question that might remain in your head is do stage musicals with this amount of pizzazz and energy really have to be so very dumb? The humour in this more than 20-year-old work is clunking and unfunny, revealing the characters as so grotesquely simple it hurts. If you think of the dialogue characterising works like The Sound of Music or Chicago – as two very different productions in this genre – you get an understanding of their universalism and timelessness through the impeccable sense of wisdom and dignity applied in the development of each character: the lowest-common-denominator humour in Sister Act arguably is the element which causes it to stumble as a production.

It’s the tale of a young black female singer who finds herself unwittingly vulnerable to crooks and bad men. A nearby church is in dire financial straits and agrees to hide her. Her musical arranging skills, maverick personality and flippant disregard for church rules win the day, enabling the church to gain the kind of street cred that will keep it relevant. It’s numbingly predictable, but tightly woven, in terms of nuances and several ‘wow’ moments, in the set, bringing together the mystery and majesty of implied church architecture with all its arches and stained glass windows intact.

The work features stand out performances by Candida Mosoma as the lead, Deloris; Kate Normington as the Mother Superior and Keith Smith as the monsignor, but it is the combination of the stark costumes and a lot of the ensemble work that keep its professionalism sizzling. Also, significantly, the male ensemble collaborations, featuring the bad guys and the cops, is worthy of mention: a level of totally fabulous sonority and balance is evoked by the guys in this girl-power story.

Sister Act makes for a rambunctious but safe evening’s entertainment. All the elements are in place and are handled with due colour, sound and light, but there’s an element of fire, a point of performative glory that the work as a whole lacks.

  • Sister Act, based on the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. It is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Sarah Roberts (costumes), Declan Randall (set), Trevor Peters (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography) and is performed by Bjorn Blignaut, Caroline Borole, Vanessa Brierley, Caitlin Clerk, Anne-Marie Clulow, Elizca Coetzer, Judy Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Trudy Fredericks, Germandt Geldenhuys, Zane Gillion, Clive Gilson, Themba January, Dolly Louw, Mervin Marvey, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Kate Normington, Dean Roberts, Brenda Sakellarides, Andrea Shine, Shelly Simon, Nqobile Sipamla, Keith Smith, Lebo Toko, Carmen Tromp, LJ Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe and Zano. It performs at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 15. Call 0861670670 or visit com