REVIEW: Fresh “Sweeney Todd” serves chills and thrills (and pie!)
London’s Tooting Arts Club’s production of “Sweeney Todd”, which opened at the Barrow Street Theatre Off-Broadway on March 1st, achieves what has long eluded the “Sweeney” fan. It’s fresh and chilling, and, most importantly, it’s thrilling.
In 1979, the original Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece collaboration with Hugh Wheeler, was subtly subtitled “A Musical Thriller.”
Legendary director Harold Prince’s epic production—which opened cold in New York and has since become the stuff of lore—was shocking and, yes, as its subtitle promised: thrilling. Audiences entered the cavernous Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin) to witness the musical’s bloody revenge cycle play out on Eugene Lee’s unforgettable factory warehouse set. Staidly painted backdrops contrasted with the raw steel and gears of industry. A generously sized chorus sang scintillatingly intense and menacing ballads, accompanied by an equally generous pit band performing Jonathan Tunick’s lush orchestrations. Whistles wrought wincing. Blood was strewn. And musical theatre magic was made.
Mr. Prince, who has never shied from going big, brilliantly wielded metaphor with cutting effect, and set what might have been an impossible bar for any subsequent production. Emulation has failed, even in restaging, and so, as with virtually all post-Prince revivals, subsequent directors have gone small, to mixed effect.
Auteur John Doyle’s stunning 2005 Broadway revival, which memorably debuted his technique of having the actors double as the orchestra, was a rare and notable exception. Tim Burton’s wan 2005 film adaptation adopted a slasher movie motif, but, as with most Burton films of this century, fell flat and felt mechanical, lacking the deft and unique artistry of his earlier work.
Coupled with the twin curses of age and familiarity, the “musical thriller”, over the years, lost its thrill. Like your favorite comedy, the one you love and know so well that the jokes themselves are no longer funny, “Sweeney Todd” –the, let’s not forget, musical about a mad barber and his demented sidekick who exact revenge by murdering patrons to make them into meat pies for human consumption—tragically became a bit twee, antique even. If you ever caught the Prince restaging at the New York City Opera, you know exactly what I mean.
Ok, I wasn’t alive in 1979, but visiting the Barrow Street Theatre has now given me an idea of what an inaugural viewing of “Sweeney Todd” might feel like. That achievement alone makes this current production a “must see” for any serious theatregoer, and there’s so much more that warrants a visit downtown.
Taking a step back, the novel conceit of this “Sweeney” is that the entire show is set inside a pie shop. Not the fictional Mrs. Lovett’s, but the famed Harrington’s Pie and Mash, est. 1908. The production started in London where it played at the Harrington’s for six weeks with only 35 seats, before a longer, sold-out commercial transfer on the West End.
At Off-Broadway’s black box Barrow Street Theatre—where its run was recently extended to May 27, 2018—we get a well-crafted facsimile designed by Simon Kenny, eerily lit by Amy Mae through a combination of candles and shadowy lights, and seating 130. I must admit that I was skeptical the first time I caught the production back in May, but consider this skeptic converted. A second viewing this week only confirmed my beliefs.
Far from being kitschy, the pie-shop setting makes for a fitful and frightful mise-en-scène, performing a sly burlesque before us as it reveals new insights to the material with economically effective utility from the blackout at the top to the very last chord of Act II. Sure, it isn’t wholly transformative, acoustic challenges as in any small space linger throughout, and the “immersion” veers close to gimmick a few times (theatregoers can pay a few extra bucks for some pie and mash pre-show), but the overall idea is good, and always remains in service to the material.
Director Bill Buckhurst, like John Doyle before him, not only invites us to leave our preconceptions of “Sweeney” at the door, but delivers an evening that feels as exciting and fresh as a new work of the highest caliber. That “Sweeney” has intermittently haunted the island of Manhattan for nearly four decades makes this achievement all the more impressive.
A tight ensemble of eight players (every role but Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are doubled and tripled up) are mere feet, and sometimes inches, from the audience in this intimate production, popping up in every corner of the space like a haunted house.
Veteran New York actors Hugh Panaro and Carolee Carmello play Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, respectively. The show opened with British actors Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy in the roles; they departed in April to be replaced by Norm Lewis (whom I saw in May) and Ms. Carmello. Mr. Panaro joined the cast in August.
Ironically, and most regrettably, the only disappointing performance is that of the titular character: Sweeney Todd, whose characterization leaves him largely invisible. I had thought perhaps it was Mr. Lewis’ performance when I first saw the show, but Mr. Panaro similarly fades into the scenery. Sweeney Todd is not the at the hub of this narrative, instead serving as a spoke or gear in the story—a nod to the ensemble approach. Director Bill Buckhurst’s take on Sweeney’s brooding intensity is too small for a character of such epic proportions, even when performed in such a small setting with such a small cast.
Sweeney’s invisibility is all the more exaggerated because he is paired with New York’s best chameleon, the chronically under-appreciated Carolee Carmello, who gives a pitch-perfect performance as Mrs. Lovett. Where Mr. Lewis and Mr. Panaro were diffuse, Ms. Carmello is sharp. When her Sweeneys get lost amid the myriad moving pieces of the inventive staging, Ms. Carmello commands attention, breathing new life into every line read and lyric, making them somehow sound as though we are hearing them for the first time. She’s kooky and humorous, simultaneously devilish and vulnerable. It is a joy to watch.
The balance of the cast gives rich, nuanced performances in roles that are all too easy to default to stock. Indeed, a signature of this “Sweeney” is that nothing is lazy and all of it is effortless. That may be a necessary function of the close quarters, but it, nevertheless, is admirable.
The opening lines of the show famously invite you to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” Make sure you attend this “Sweeney Todd” before it closes in May. Chills and thrills await you.
Bottom Line: a new production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's masterpiece "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" breathes fresh life into a now-classic musical, reducing the cast to 8 and setting the play in a pie shop. This inventive and thrilling production is a "must see".
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 1, 2017
Final Performance: May 27, 2018 *extended to August 26, 2018