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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Sweeney Todd in its site-specific, pie-shop staging is bloody brilliant

Written by
David Cote


Sweeney Todd set in a (working) replica of a London pie shop, with actors jumping on tables, inches from audience members’ faces? Sounds like a terrible idea. Know what else sounded terrible on paper? A Broadway musical about a vengeful barber who slits customers’ throats and whose accomplice bakes the corpses into meat pies. But Sweeney Todd (1979) is Stephen Sondheim’s grisly masterpiece (with book writer Hugh Wheeler), the most melodically complex and theatrically bold of his works. Just as Sweeney defied expectations, this high-concept staging is—to borrow Sweeney’s encomium of Mrs. Lovett—a bloody wonder, eminently practical yet appropriate.

True, the “practical” part must be qualified in the second act (the close quarters can’t accommodate a trick barber’s chair), but for the most part, director Bill Buckhurst and a hugely talented cast make this site-specific Sweeney seem as natural as pie and mash. Before the show, spectators roll up to a functional pop-up eatery and order a savory dish of crusted goodness in sauce (you must order in advance). After plates are cleared, the scary music starts, and you may find your nosh lurching in your guts as the cast proceeds to terrify you.

An ambitious goulash of melodrama, satire and horror movie, the operetta-ish Sweeney fuses Sondheim’s most beautiful music to his most extreme nihilism. Sweeney (Jeremy Secomb) seeks revenge against Judge Turpin (Duncan Smith) for raping Sweeney’s wife and planning to deflower his daughter, Johanna (Alex Finke), who became the judge’s ward after Sweeney was unfairly transported to Australia. Fair enough, you think, but our razor-swinging protagonist, in true divo fashion, allows his targeted bloodlust to cause a great deal of collateral damage. Pie-shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Siobhán McCarthy) helps her friend dispose of the bodies while making a profit. 

In this claustrophobic environment, the horror and madness is palpable. Secomb has a strapping frame, slicked-back hair and a thousand-yard stare that, if it lights on you, raises instant gooseflesh. A stage veteran in London (where this revival began in 2014), Secomb also has excellent pipes, amplified by the intimate setting. As the daffy yet deadly Lovett, McCarthy threads the needle of comic sidekick and conscience-free harridan with fearsome wit. Another English actor, Joseph Taylor, is perfectly waifish and wily as Tobias Ragg. Our American actors hold their own: Brad Oscar is a tartly campy Beadle Bamford and the ferocious Betsy Morgan does double duty as rival barber Pirelli and the half-mad Beggar Woman. Matt Doyle is aptly earnest as Johanna’s love and savior, sailor boy Anthony.

With eight actors, a three-piece band and the built-in limitation of the space, this production obviously takes liberties with the text (plenty of small cuts), but the emotional, visceral impact of Sweeney Todd is still there. In fact, the sonic joys of Sondheim’s richly woven score and the Grand Guignol shocks of this primal tragedy are almost unbearably intense. From outside it may look like a light snack, but this thrilling, overwhelming Sweeney is a full-course meal: hot from the oven and dripping blood.

Barrow Street Theatre (Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Bill Buckhurst. With Jeremy Secomb, Siobhán McCarthy. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission. Through Dec 31. Click here for full venue and ticket information. Note: The lead roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are currently played by Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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