Carolee Carmello and Norm Lewis in the Barrow Street Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” | JOAN MARCUS
There are some shows I can never get tired of because they reveal more with each successive viewing — and they’re simply that good. That’s certainly the case for Shakespeare and, very often, for Sondheim. By last count, I’ve now seen “Sweeney Todd” 18 times in various different productions from Broadway to major opera companies, and most recently the stunning mounting currently at the Barrow Street Theatre.
For this production, this sprawling show has been reconceived as a chamber piece and the theater has been transformed into a pie shop, complete with benches and tables and features a company of eight — plus three musicians. If you so desire, you can order a pie to have in that setting before the production begins. In London, this Tooting Arts Club production was originally staged in the real Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop.
When I first saw this production last fall, I was transported by the power of the intimacy of being in such a small environment with the actors, sometimes literally, in your face. The reduced instrumentation was a revelation, allowing the score to be heard with a clarity that emphasized its sophistication. The performances of Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy (from the original London cast) as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, respectively, emphasized the cartoonish horror with an intensity that was galvanizing and thrilling in every sense of the word.
Barrow Street’s “Sweeney Todd” as exciting as ever with new cast
I recently went back to see the production again with a mostly new, American cast that features Broadway veterans Norm Lewis as Sweeney Todd and Carolee Carmello as his partner in murder, revenge, and cannibalistic comestibles. Happily, this “Sweeney Todd” remains one of the most exciting things to see in New York right now, and it’s not to be missed.
What continues to work so well is director Bill Buckhurst’s staging and use of the tiny company to create the rich world of the show. By integrating the actors with the audience — on the tables, in the tiny aisles, and in the balcony — the experience is completely enveloping and, like the best horror movies, can be both harrowing and hilarious. The impressive energy in a small space explodes with theatricality again and again, as the book and the score relentlessly sweep us along on this grim but glorious journey.
For those who don’t know the story, it comes from a 19th century penny dreadful, a story intentionally designed to be overblown, overdramatic, and scary. Sweeney, a barber, returns to London having been sent to prison in Australia on trumped up charges. Home again, he thinks his adored wife is dead and sets out to exact revenge on the judge and the beadle responsible for her degradation and presumed demise. Sweeney meets Mrs. Lovett, owner of a failing pie shop, and together they go on a murderous spree.
It’s a perfect relationship. Sweeney needs balm for his tormented soul. Mrs. Lovett needs meat. As he sets about killing his customers, Sweeney finds his daughter Johanna, now 16 and the ward of the same horrible judge, and rescues her with the help of Anthony, the sailor who saved Sweeney on his escape from the penal colony.
The tale of retribution and rescue performed in tight quarters takes on a tension and urgency that are part of what make this production so remarkable. Needless to say, happy endings are reserved only for the young and innocent, which is both the conventional morality of the original tale’s time and a mordant reminder of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Hugh Wheeler’s book has themes of class and privilege woven throughout.
Both Lewis and Carmello are spectacular in their roles. Lewis sings the role more lyrically than any Sweeney I’ve heard, including opera star Bryn Terfel. His rich and powerful voice, unforgettable in “Porgy and Bess” and the original “Side Show,” is here underpinned by his intensity as an actor, and his Sweeney is both chillingly raging and appealing. In this compact theater, every nuance of character is felt and often sends chills up the spine.
Carmello is every bit Lewis’ match as Mrs. Lovett. This is one of the most complicated and demanding roles to sing in modern musical theater, and Carmello makes it seem effortless. She is also a flawless comedienne who makes this the funniest Mrs. Lovett I’ve seen. She has the advantage of the small space to do so much with a look and small gesture to enrich her portrayal. Given the enterprise Mrs. Lovett is engaged in, it’s disconcerting to fall in love with her, but Carmello makes it impossible not to.
The other new members of the cast include Jamie Jackson in a brilliantly sung performance as Judge Turpin, Stacie Bono as the Beggar Woman/ Pirelli, and John-Michael Lyles as Tobias, the young boy Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett press into service after murdering Pirelli to protect Sweeney’s identity. Lyles has a fresh voice and puppy-dog-like quality in the role that work perfectly. Continuing members of the company include another Broadway veteran, Brad Oscar, as the Beadle, Matt Doyle as Anthony, and Alex Finke as Johanna. They all continue in top form both as their characters and in the choral passages that punctuate and comment on the action.
“Sweeney Todd” has always been a thrill ride. The “horror” of the story could never been seen as real, at least by anyone with an understanding of the genre and a capacity for abstract thought, and so we’re free to indulge in its over-the-top-darkness and to laugh it off at the end, having had a good scare. Combined with the artistry of Sondheim’s score, it’s no wonder I go back to see this show as often as possible. You should, too.
SWEENEY TODD | Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., btwn. Seventh Ave. S. & W. Fourth St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.: Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7:30 p.m. | $69.50-$17; pre-show pie, ordered in advance, at $22.50 | web.ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission