In 1982, under the direction of the late great Zenaida Amador, Sweeney Todd opened for the very first time in our country, to mixed reviews. Apparently, there were people who’d leave at the end of act one because they couldn’t stand to see or listen further to the melancholy and heaviness that Stephen Sondheim spewed into this controversial work. Some fans and aficionados may consider Sweeney to be a misstep in the composer’s lionized career. Others dub the show Sondheim’s definitive masterpiece. Definitely, it was the first of its kind — the first musical told through the unassuming lens of the horror genre. And interestingly enough, some would claim that Sweeney was one of the best musicals that Repertory Philippines had ever staged to date.
We can only speculate. Maybe it was the bloody gore or the complexity of the almost three-hour maniacal mayhem — recently remade for the silver screen starring Hollywood chameleon Johnny Depp. Perhaps it was the lyrical and vocal calisthenics that dovetailed with each song — obviously inasmuch as that the songs of Sweeney didn’t really sit as well with listeners as, say, a battle hymn from Les Miserables or a ballad from Phantom of the Opera — that, as with Sondheim musicals like Company or Into the Woods, there was hardly any room for audiences to blink or breathe as they tried to digest what was being sung, or said, or what was going on entirely.
But for the preview night of the 2009 revival of Sweeney Todd, Repertory Philippines’ bloody glorious offering for the holiday season, audiences stayed glued to their seats. They listened, digested (even Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies befitting a preview night), and kept fundamentally aware and abreast ‘til the very end. They would later rise to give the cast a well-deserved standing ovation. Magnificent! Bravo! Bloody beautiful! It’s one of those big musicals that show you why nobody else can do like Rep can. And for the sake of those who have been living under a rock, they are no longer cooped up in Shangri-La Mall.
The premise is out of this world. A victim of cruel injustice at the hands of the wicked Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, Benjamin Barker is deported to Australia on false charges and is separated from his beloved wife and his daughter Johanna. Many years later, with the aid of the annoyingly optimistic Anthony, he returns to London disguised as Sweeney Todd and stumbles upon a nutty pie-maker in the person of Mrs. Lovett. Together, they plot the barber’s revenge upon his former miscreants, slicing throats of those who get in his way as the new “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and transforming them, care of Mrs. Lovett, into unsavory meat pies. The plot is almost deplorable — thick, ridiculous, humorous to a certain extent, yet delicious in the darkest and most vicious way possible. I could just eat up the f***ed up sense and sensibility of the play. But it works for the odd couple as their dastardly plan unhinges them from the cudgels of poverty and gives pork empanada a run for its money. Cue urban legend of stray cats being used for siomai — if only Mrs. Lovett was oriental. (Shudder.)
Playing the title role in the play is grand master Audie Gemora who, if I recall correctly, has always considered playing Sweeney Todd to be his dream endeavor. He is so indulgent of the character, in a good way, playing host to the wretched yet tormented man who becomes the Demon Barber of Fleet Street — sort of like how Heath Ledger becomes the living, breathing, spine-tingling Joker in Dark Knight. Audie plays it so well. His layers are full, and his stillness is frighteningly effective to say the least, proof of his incomparable experience and years of performing onstage. Where Audie shines, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo who plays Mrs. Lovett is not so far behind. The two celebrated veterans stand on equal footing.
She is humorous, haunting and gives a tour-de-force performance throughout the show. Her cockney English is convincing but more so, the depth and sheer brilliance that emanated from Lovett’s whimsically conniving character. Her enunciation, even in lyric-heavy songs like The Worst Pies in London, sits easy on the ears, and on your brain. She truly is the First Lady of Philippine Theater, and Audie, the First Gentleman — the good kind.
There are also a slew of stellar performances from the cast, including Robbie Zialcita as Senor Pirelli (the role that Sacha Baron-Cohen, a.k.a. Borat, essayed in the movie), Robbie Guevara as Beadle, Roger Chua as Judge Turpin, Liesl Batucan as the beggar woman, and Rep newcomers Lena McKenzie as Johanna, Franco Laurel as Anthony, and Marvin Ong as Tobias. Franco Laurel’s voice is hauntingly beautiful — coming from a strong family of singers that includes Cocoy Laurel who once played the role. The bright-eyed romantic suits him and provides the stark contrast to the otherwise heavy theme of the show. But the revelation is Franco’s fellow newcomer to the Rep stage, Marvin Ong.
His was a voice that was powerful, spot-on, and never once flinched. The guy seemed to have so much depth at such a young age, and it’s nice to see him sharing the stage with Menchu, Audie and the seasoned actors of Repertory Philippines.
But as with most ensemble pieces, it was really the cast in its entirety, including the star-studded chorus of Joy Virata, Jay Glorioso, Raul Montesa and Rem Zamora among many others, that make Sweeney Todd, directed by Michael Williams and Baby Barredo, work, work, and work. When the show opens, you’re treated to the deep baritone of Meynard Penalosa (although a faulty lapel mic unfortunately derailed me from the experience) and several others until you are slapped into an aural climax by the company — singing with piercing looks, 10 or 100-part harmonies, and skilled intensity. The play is strongest when the cast is facing the audience, and I quite literally pulled my hair at one point due to the sheer power that they exuded. I hadn’t seen anything like Sweeney on the Philippine stage before. Surely there is a first for everything — and this is one of those awesome, memorable, unforgettable firsts.
If only to witness the ensembles scenes, the theater magic and the brilliant performances, I will definitely watch it again. Performances are Nov. 14 to Dec. 13, 2009, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:30 p.m. Sweeney Todd runs at Onstage, 2/F Greenbelt 1, Paseo de Roxas, Makati City. For tickets and inquiries, call 887-0710, 888-0887 or log on to www.repertory.ph or Tickeworld 891-9999 or log on to www.ticketworld.com.ph.