[Theatre Review] Ploddy Todd

Sweeney Todd (Jett Pangan) and Mrs Lovett (Lea Salonga)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre
3 December 2019
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
28 November‒8 December 2019

We all know that Mrs Lovett has the “worst pies in London”, but at least she could tell us what is in them.

The same cannot be said of Bobby Garcia’s production of Sweeney Todd.

In the programme notes, he states that he drew his inspiration from Hitchcock’s thrillers and wanted to create a scary atmosphere filled with suspense. He also wanted the visual aspects of the show to “subtly comment on the industrial revolution” when technology and automation took over “home made [sic] manufacturing”.

The result?

A production that borrows its vehicles from Grease and wardrobe from Rent. Set designer David Gallo then sprinkles the vehicles all over, while costume designer Rajo Laurel refashions the slum-dwellers as sloppy American teenagers—his idea of deconstructing Sweeney Todd.

The show then starts with the characters spending five full minutes exploring the set with torch lights only to remind the audience to put away their mobile phones—scary and suspenseful indeed.

Worse still, most of the major action is carried out on the back, the bonnet, or inside a utility vehicle. Mr Todd’s barbershop is on the back of a utility vehicle while Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is on the stage. Todd’s victims simply get up from the chair, slides off the side of the vehicle, and walks into cage-like oven on stage right.

As if that cannot get any worse, the utility vehicle has to be manually moved by the ensemble as the floorboards crackle, even in the quieter moments.

Vehicles borrowed from “Grease”, costumes borrowed from “Rent”

Continuing the theme of incoherence is Jett Pangan as Sweeney Todd. Rather than being hell-bent on revenge for his wrongful conviction and the loss of his wife, Pangan’s Todd comes across as a bored teenager in a math class. His sudden outbursts of anger are completely unmotivated. To top it all off, his accent zips across continents at a pace that would put the Concorde to shame. It varies between faux-British, American South, and a sprinkle of the Bronx. His only saving grace is that he could carry a tune, albeit in a very studied fashion.

This is in stark contrast to Lea Salonga’s vivacity as Mrs Lovett, and she maintains her cockney accent impeccably. Her eccentricities are endearing and the way she plays up the comical aspects of Mrs Lovett is refreshing. Mrs Lovett’s pies may be half-baked, but Salonga’s performance is anything but so. One feels sorry for her in “A Little Priest” as Mrs Lovett imagines the various victims that would be used in her pies. Salonga gives everything she got and hits every joke only for it to fall flat when it comes to Pangan—imagine trying to bounce a tennis ball off a soggy pile of mud.

An imperious baritone voice is quite suitable for Judge Turpin (Andrew Fernando), who sentenced Sweeney (then known as Benjamin Barker) while taking the latter’s daughter, Johanna Barker, as his ward. Unfortunately, Fernando cannot seem to shake off his opera training, resulting in some lyrics and spoken text being garbled by the plummy timbre of his operatic baritone voice.

Nyoy Volante’s Adolfo Pirelli, Todd’s competitor who knows of his past, is delightful dainty and one relishes his camp posturing.

Gerald Santos tries his best with the accent as Anthony Hope. He succeeds by delivering his lines with two different types of inflections, thereby giving us a forgettable performance. This is slightly improved when he is with his love interest, Johanna Barker (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante), who has a pleasant singing voice, and Sondheim ought to be chastised for not giving her more music.

The ensemble as chorus commenting on the story is decent. They serve as the glue that is just about strong enough to prevent this slap-dash production from collapsing into a junk heap.

At the end of it all, one goes away not being spooked one bit, but wishing Mrs Lovett and Pirelli got together and do a thigh-slapping revue instead.

Other Reviews

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street review at Sands Theatre in Singapore – It’s bloody and awful, but not bloody awful” by Andrew Leci, Robb Report Singapore

“Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment, Presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Music Review] Lea Salonga Sings With Her Heart on Her Sleeve

lea salonga concert

Lea Salonga in Concert

22 May 2015

Esplanade Concert Hall

22–23 May 2015

“It’s ok if you don’t understand a single word,” assures Salonga before a medley of Filipino songs, “we as a people wear our hearts on our sleeves.” With a programme comprising pop songs, jazz, Disney, and show tunes, there is undoubtedly a lot of heart in her renditions.

From the opening jazz number, Feelin’ Good, she makes her approach to the songs clear. Rather than taking this opportunity to pull out all the stops and belt it out in its full jazzy glory, she decides to sing it straight—no frills, just music.

She lets the effort and ingenuity of the composers, lyricists, and the arranger (who happens to be her brother, Gerard Salonga) do the talking. And she backs them up by displaying an exquisite sense of control and technique.

She moves across various registers effortlessly—her high notes are not shrill but really powerful while every word can be heard when she sings in the lower register. She sustains her long notes very well while colouring it with a gorgeous vibrato. With such skill, who needs to engage in vocal gymnastics to prove a point?

Despite her straightforward approach, she does not lack in showmanship. While the concert hall has seen grand recitals, Salonga’s candour and personality turns the sizeable space into an intimate one. Despite her fame, she is open with anecdotes from her personal life and has no qualms about teasing her brother. No shout-out from the audience is left unanswered. In fact, she encourages it and one lucky chap, Kim, got to be Aladdin for the night in A Whole New World.

One of the highlights has got to be songs from Les Misérables. Having played Eponine and Fantine, singing One My Own or I Dreamed a Dream would be a natural choice. Being a crowd-pleaser, she sings a medley of both songs. Being familiar with the songs, I thought it would be quite difficult to merge them without an abrupt break. However, that is where the brilliance of music director Gerard Salonga comes in as the transition felt natural and well chosen.

Aside from pleasing the crowd, I realise that putting both songs together should be a natural choice. Both characters are roughly about the same age when they sing their respective songs and they are about lost loves. While Fantine is utterly dejected by the end of her song, both girls still dream about having their men by their side.

It is such a beautiful coincidence that my first introduction to Salonga is through the 10th Anniversary concert DVD and now, the Salongas—both Lea and Gerard—have given me a renewed appreciation of the musical.

Despite listening to a slew of crowd favourites, what really got to me was Mr Bojangles. Salonga prefaces the song by sharing an anecdote about young Robin Williams being a mime at Central Park, New York. Days after his death, his friend who was his fellow mime then wrote a touching tribute. While I was hoping that she gave her own personal anecdote of Williams, her soulful rendition of the song really got me in knots. All I could think of was: please Mr Bojangles, just one more dance?

Clearly, Salonga’s artistry does not just lie in her singing but also in the way she plans her programme and introduces them.

The lady sitting beside me, who unfortunately decides to sing along with Salonga for a quarter of the programme, remarks that Salonga is mesmerising. While I cannot agree with her singing, I wholeheartedly concur with her opinion.