BWW Review: Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello Make For A Meatier SWEENEY TODD
The new Off-Broadway production of SWEENEY TODD just got a whole lot meatier. No, the chef hasn't been adding more filling to the tasty meat pies audience members can enjoy before the performance. The new reason for checking into the Barrow Street Theater is a chance to see two top shelf singer/actors, Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello, transform a production that opened in March as an amusing Grand Guignol melodrama into a deeply moving and gorgeously sung evening of thrilling musical theatre.
This particular telling of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's version 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 their choice of a chicken or veggie pie 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 eight-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 was a problem when this reviewer saw the production's original British stars playing the leading roles, especially during the lyricist's quick patter flourishes, but that's not an issue anymore. For the record, I was sitting in the same seat both times attending.
Possessing one of the most beautiful voices of today's Broadway regulars, Norm Lewis gives full value to Sondheim's music, rarely shouting or speaking lyrics, as is often done. His Sweeney Todd isn't a madman, but rather an emotionally wounded human driven to madness by the circumstance of being sent to Australia on bogus charges and returning to London only to be told that his wife is dead and his now-teenage daughter is forcibly being kept by a powerful judge.
Carolee Carmello, who plays his entrepreneurial accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, possesses a sterling dramatic singing voice and a keen knack for character-driven comedy. As the lovesick proprietor of a failing meat pie shop that gets a sudden (and symbolic) surge in business once Mr. Todd starts providing her with a special secret ingredient, Carmello draws you in with her character's absurd self-effacing humor and breaks your heart when she reveals Mrs. Lovett's desperate loneliness.
Their realistic performances are perfectly suited to the production's intimate environment, and I daresay it's unlikely you'll find a better singing and acting pair playing these two demanding roles.
Also new to the production are the charming and sweetly-voiced John-Michael Lyles as the waifish Tobias, who Mrs. Lovett takes in as a surrogate child and unwitting accomplice, and Stacie Bono, adding great comic and vocal chops doubling as the crazed beggar woman and Todd's rival, the operatic ItalIan Barber, Pirelli. Another newcomer, Jamie Jackson, provides fine work as the cruel and romantically delusional Judge Turpin.
The actors remaining from the production's original cast are all in terrific form. 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 and dapper as Beadle Bamford.
With subtler, deeper performances from its central pair, Sweeney Todd's commentary about the dehumanizing effects of industry and the ruthlessly competitive nature that drives men to devour one another comes through much more powerfully. What opened in March as simply a classic musical performed with a fun concept is now a ravishing night of great theatre.