BWW Review: Demon Barber Moves To Barrow Street In An Intimate SWEENEY TODD
When Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's classic musical thriller Sweeney Todd: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET opened on Broadway in 1979, Harold Prince's production was of grand operatic proportions. Opera houses frequently produce the show in that manner, but New York's stage revivals seem to be getting increasingly smaller.
Ten years after its premiere, Circle In The Square housed a scaled down production that was nicknamed "Teeny Todd," and in 2005, director John Doyle's mounting was accomplished with an ensemble of ten performers who played their characters, sang in the ensemble and made up the orchestra.
The new Off-Broadway telling of the tale of a mad 19th Century London barber who, with help of the smitten pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, goes on a vengeful killing spree by cutting the throat of any customer seeking a shave, originated in London itself. It was producer Rachel Edwards, co-founder of the Tooting Arts Club, who got the idea to stage the musical in the intimate, site-specific confines of Harrington's pie and mash shop.
The production was well-received and, with only 35 seats available per performance, Sweeney Todd was a hot ticket. When Harrington's needed to close for renovations, a replica of the pie shop was created for a West End production that served 69 patrons at a time.
Harrington's has once again been recreated; this time at the Barrow Street Theatre. It's a real eye-popping change for anyone who has seen a play from the space's usual proscenium setup. Designer Simon Kenny's shop has most audience members seated at long communal tables and those who order in advance are advised to arrive early to munch on a tasty meat pie (chicken or veggie) served with mash and washed down with beer, wine, ginger ale or water.
There's no eating during the performance, however, since director Bill Buckhurst's ten-member cast sometimes plays out scenes while standing on the tables. Most of the action, however, is played in one section of the house where a staircase is situated between a kitchen counter and music director Matt Aument's piano/violin/clarinet ensemble.
This is a Sweeney Todd best suited for those familiar with the musical and looking for an entertaining change of pace. The lack of a set that even suggests essential pieces, like the barber chair and the oven, would probably leave the uninitiated a bit in the dark as to exactly what's happening during several moments. Also, with the actors playing many scenes standing on the floor, there's no guarantee of an unblocked view of the action.
Vocal clarity can also be a bit of a problem if, like this reviewer, you're seated close enough to the musicians that they seem to overpower the singers. Like any Sondheim musical, the ability to understand the intricate wordplay of the story-illuminating lyrics are of vital importance. It appears as though the company performs without amplification, which is always welcome, but the non-traditional space and staging may be the reason for frequently problematic intelligibility, especially during the lyricist's quick patter flourishes.
Though the intimate playing space provides an opportunity for subtly nuanced performances, the two leading players, repeating their London success, act their roles with big, broad strokes. Jeremy Secomb's exceedingly-grim Sweeney seems one-dimensionally cold, often barking out his lyrics like a drill sergeant instead of singing. When he's staged to get right into the faces of audience members, it's more of a comical bit than chilling moment.
Siobhan McCarthy is a frenetically daffy as his entrepreneurial accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Though rather endearing when expressing her affection for the cutthroat, the kookiness of her characterization often gets in the way of the Sondheim and Wheeler's scripted cleverness.
(Broadway's Norm Lewis and Carloee Carmello take over the starring roles beginning April 11th.)
Also visiting from the London production are Duncan Smith, quite good as the pompously authoritative and romantically delusional Judge Turpin, and Joseph Taylor, sweet and charming as the waifish Tobias, who Mrs. Lovett takes in as a surrogate child and unwitting accomplice.
Matt Doyle lends a lovely voice and sturdy presence as Anthony, the young sailor who falls for Alex Finke's quirky, bird-like Johanna, unaware she's the daughter of his new friend, Mr. Todd. After Judge Turpin sent Todd, then known as Benjamin Barker, away in chains, he took the barber's daughter in as his ward, grooming her to one day be his bride.
Two-time Tony nominee Brad Oscar is delightfully droll as Beadle Bamford and Betsy Morgan is terrific, doubling as the crazed beggar woman who haunts the city's streets and as the flamboyant ItalIan Barber Pirelli, who learns not to mess with the ferocious Todd.
While Sweeney Todd is packed with commentary about the dehumanizing effects of industry and the ruthlessly competitive nature that drives men to devour one another, this production is more focused on Grand Guignol melodrama. It's fun, but not especially filling.