You may have heard the tale of SWEENEY TODD. This nearly completely sung-through musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler tells the story of Benjamin Barker - a man who was falsely accused and convicted of crime by a corrupt judge who wanted Barker out of the way so the judge could ravish Barker’s beautiful wife. Barker escapes from prison in Australia, and with the help of a young sailor, makes his way back to London. There, he’s told his wife is dead and his daughter is a virtual prisoner of the evil judge Turpin who convicted. Adopting the name Sweeney Todd, Barker aligns with Mrs. Lovett, proprietress of a struggling meat pie shop. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett find a way to help each other out. She gives him space above her shop so he can work as a barber. To act out his rage against humanity, he slits the throats of unsuspecting customers who Mrs. Lovett then bakes into her meat pies. Patrons find the new ingredient tasty and business begins to boom.
Broadway in New York Moves to a Pie Shop
Well, not exactly an actual pie shop, but an off-Broadway theatre decorated convincingly to look like a pie shop. The main seating area of the Barrow Street Theatre has been outfitted with four long tables and two counters, each seating six customers per side. The head of each table is reserved for performers who occasionally sit down while performing and address the audience. In front of the tables is the main playing area, including a “kitchen and serving counter,” a staircase leading up to the unseen barber shop above the pie shop and the three-piece accompanying orchestra of a piano, violin and clarinet.
This production, by a London theatre company called The Tooting Arts Club was originally performed in London’s oldest pie shop – Harrington’s Pies and Mash, a space that could hold an audience of just 32. Their production opened in the winter of 2014 and was such a hit that it was moved to a larger venue – a London nightclub outfitted to look like the pie shop. The Barrow Street Theatre, for Sweeney Todd, can seat 127 – there are several rows of behind the long tables and a small balcony above.
Though the Barrow Street Theatre is not actually a pie shop, meat or veggie pies are available to audiences for an additional $22.50 per person. For a more elegant entrée, Beef Wellington is available for an extra $29.00 over the ticket price for the show alone. Patrons wishing to eat at the show arrive early. All tables are cleared before the non-dining patrons enter the “shop” for the performance.
SWEENEY TODD boasts a tiny cast with big talent
Also distinguishing this SWEENEY from more traditional productions is its downsized cast of just eight. The original Broadway production had a cast of 27 (and a pit orchestra of at least 20 musicians). Eight is enough to tell this story though. While the actors playing Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett have no other roles, the other actors sing as the ensemble parts and some play multiple specific roles. At the performance this writer attended, the production boasted some stellar performers.
Hugh Panaro, who played the title role in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA for over 2000 performances and originated the role of Marius in LES MISERABLES on Broadway, was an angry, powerful Sweeney at the performance reviewed in January 2018. At one point, Panaro bounded in from behind, nearly knocking this audience member over with his voice alone. Mrs. Lovett was played by Carolee Carmello, a popular leading lady on Broadway who originated roles in PARADE, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and LESTAT and has been a replacement lead in many others. Carmello not only sang the challenging Sondheim songs masterfully but displayed exceptional comic chops – that were all the more visible in the intimate setting. Her comedic use of facial expression was the sort of performance one would more likely see in television and was only visible here thanks to our proximity to the actors. Seeing two Broadway stars in what felt like almost a private, command performance was a special treat – and one that justifies the Broadway-like ticket prices for this off-Broadway show. Panaro and Carmello left the cast on Sunday, February 25 and were replaced by Broadway veterans Thom Sesma and Sally Ann Triplett on February 27.
Panaro and Carmello were ably supported by the other six performers in the current cast. Jake Boyd, playing Anthony Hope, the sailor who rescues Sweeney and falls in love with his daughter Johanna, displayed a gorgeous tenor voice and innocent demeanor as the earnest young sailor. On the night reviewed, understudy Monet Sabel stepped in for Erin LeCroy as Johanna and Sabel’s winning soprano voice made a lovely Johanna.
John-Michael Lyles was the simple young boy Tobias that Mrs. Lovett takes in after the mysterious disappearance of the barber Adolpho Pirelli, was played (as it occasionally is, as a “trouser role”) by Stacie Bono; who also played the Beggar Woman.
Michael James Leslie lent his booming bass voice to the role of Judge Turpin and John Rapson – known to many for his multiple comedic roles in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER – was hilariously haughty as Turpin’s today Beadle.
Boyd, LeCroy and Lyles will also left the production on February 27. They were replaced by Billy Harrigan Tighe, DeLaney Westfall, and Zachary Noah Piser, all of whom are in the cast as of this writing on March 21.
Broadway in New York pick for fans of SWEENEY TODD and Stephen Sondheim
While the pie shop decorations are fairly realistic (and are refurbished during intermission to reflect the shop’s prosperity as the new secret meat ingredient gains popularity), the audience must use their imagination to picture some of the other settings – like the Judge’s home and courtroom, a madhouse and the bake room with its huge and deadly oven. Those who have seen the show before – and many people have – will have no trouble here. And, the minimal scenery is more than compensated for by the energetic and intimate performances, with actors bounding up and down from tables just inches from the audience’s faces in Bill Buckhurst’s direction. Even the reduced orchestrations – with just piano, violin and clarinet capture enough of the texture of the original orchestrations to be satisfying.
Buckhurst’s take on the material is mostly comic – the performers and the audience all appear to having a wonderful time – yet as the tension and danger builds in Act Two, the director builds to a scary and suspenseful finish.
Fans of SWEENEY TODD will find this an exciting, in-your-face and funny approach to this contemporary classic. Newcomers to the piece might do well to watch the movie first to get a more literal introduction to this story, but seeing this afterwards, will have a blast watching its comedy and suspense.
Now playing – open ended run. (Tickets currently on sale through August 26, 2018)
Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30pm;
Friday & Saturday at 8pm
Matinees - at 2:30pm on Saturday and 2 pm on Sunday.
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow St. at 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10014
$55.00 - $199.00
(Meat or veggie pies are an additional $22.50 per person, Beef Wellington an additional $29.00 per person)
For tickets and more information visit the website for SWEENEY TODD
All photos by Joan Marcus
About the Author:
John Olson is an arts carnivore who is particularly a love of music, theatre and film. He studied piano, trombone and string bass into his college years, performing in bands and orchestras in high school and college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working as an advertising agency account manager, he began a second career as an arts journalist and is now principal of John Olson Communications, a marketing and public relations business serving arts and entertainment clients.