Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: EW stage review
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2017)
There’s a new barber on Barrow Street and, while he may blink and rats may scuttle, he’s a welcome new off-Broadway addition.
The Tooting Arts Club’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has transformed the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village of NYC into a London pie shop and infused the murder-filled Stephen Sondheim show with even more infectious and thrilling energy than typical.
The experience begins well before the first note of the score is played, as theatergoers enter a four-walled, tile-for-tile recreation of Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, one of the oldest pie shops in London, and take their seats at pub-style banquettes. Ticketholders can choose to arrive early and dine at Harrington’s: A meat (it’s chicken — don’t worry!) or vegetable pie and generous helping of mashed potatoes — created by former White House Executive Pastry Chef William “Bill” Yosses, who was deemed “the Crust Master” by President Obama — as well as a drink, is on offer for $22.50.
And as good as that pie is, the real treat comes when the lights go down and Harrington’s becomes Mrs. Lovett’s questionable establishment. When the lights come back up, the quartet of tables at the center of the room have an actor at each head, and soon it’s clear every inch of the small venue will be used to tell the tale of the murderous barber. Cast members perform atop the tables and don’t hesitate to grunt at audience members to move so they can sit when necessary.
The story remains the same: Sweeney Todd — whose real name is Benjamin Barker — arrives in London after many, many years in prison, only to discover that his wife poisoned herself and his daughter, Johanna, has been raised by the not-so-honorable judge who put him away. Todd takes up his pre-prison occupation as a barber in the hopes he’ll be given the chance to take his razor to Judge Turpin’s neck. His penchant for slitting his clients’ throats works out well for Mrs. Lovett and her pie shop downstairs from the barber: She now has a steady influx of meat to fill her pastries. In the meantime, Johanna and a young sailor named Anthony lock eyes through her bedroom window and decide they’re in love (so, basically a Tinder match circa 1846) just as Judge Turpin decides he wants to marry his ward.
A majority of the British stars who earned acclaim for the original Tooting performances in 2014 and its subsequent West End transfer have arrived Stateside for this production. Jeremy Secomb’s Todd is perfectly menacing but he also maintains a magnetic spark that attracts Mrs. Lovett, Anthony, and the audience. Olivier Award nominee Siobhán McCarthy imbues her Mrs. Lovett with an empathy that’s often lacking from the quirky character who’s so willing to serve human flesh to her unknowing customers. Duncan Smith (Judge Turpin) and Joseph Taylor (as Tobias, the young man Mrs. Lovett eventually takes under her wing) round out the imports from the earlier iterations of the show.
Matt Doyle (Gossip Girl) and Alex Finke (Les Miserables) make up the sweet young couple, Anthony and Johanna, while Tony nominee Brad Oscar takes on The Beadle. Betsy Morgan plays the Beggar Woman and makes an exceptionally delightful Pirelli, Todd’s competition in his barber business.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics — and Hugh Wheeler’s book — fit beautifully into the small, 130-seat Barrow Street Theatre space. With only three musicians to accompany the actors, the sound still manages to fill the room; songs like “Worst Pies in London” and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” as well as Anthony’s ballad, “Johanna,” remain every bit the crowd-pleasers one might expect.
Ultimately, Sweeney Todd is a tricky show. Sure, it’s about a dark, depraved, and murderous man and a woman who doesn’t bat an eye at cannibalism. But it’s also meant to be a comedy, which makes pinpointing its tone a challenge. It didn’t really work for Tim Burton, cinema’s king of the dark and twisted, in his 2007 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The Tooting Arts Club, however, nails it. Theatergoers should count on having a bloody good time. A-