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Sweeney Todd

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 1, 2017

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy
Photo by Joan Marcus

If you're familiar with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 1979 musical by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, you're probably inclined (with good reason) to not be in the mood for meat pies. But if you attend the new revival that just opened at the Barrow Street Theatre, please shelve your common sense long enough to sample the wares before the show. The interior of this mainstay Greenwich Village venue has been transformed into a genuine pie shop, with genuine meals for sale. I had chicken, which was, well, piping hot, and bathed in a garlicky sauce, but there's a veggie option, too, and in either case, mashed potatoes are the expected accompaniment. (Luckily, the jellied eels advertised on the menu board did not seem to be on offer.)

This "pie and mash" concept is held over from this production's first incarnation at the actual Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop in London, where it ran in 2014 before packing up its pastry for a West End run. The buzz going into the New York run was, as you might expect, whether the production is good enough to warrant the fuss, or if the rave reviews ought to be saved for the pie.

Well, the pie is indeed terrific. And I'm happy to report that a significant chunk of the show itself is even better.

With the Barrow Street so compressed into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant (Simon Kenny designed the set as well as the costumes, and Amy Mae did the lights), there's no escaping any part of this tale of the villainous barber of the title, the daft baker Mrs. Lovett who becomes his partner in crime (by finding a creative way to dispose of the corpses he creates on his quest for vengeance), and the various romantic, class-defying, and tragic consequences that ensue. Although you're seated at benches and banquets with, in most cases, tables immediately in front of you, director Bill Buckhurst has found an astonishing number of ways to work you and your neighboring diners into the story. Sometimes it's as little as a glance, sometimes it's a more intense glare, sometimes it borders on manhandling. (If you're a follicly challenged gentleman, you don't want to sit on an aisle. Trust me on this.)

In every case in the first act, though, these instances—and, for that matter, the close proximity to the Grand Guignol grotesques who comprise the dramatis personae—wrench you right into the action, with incredibly little effort. Yes, the compositions are among Sondheim's best and most operatic, thrilling in their height and breadth as well as their emotional acuity, and that's not lost. But the actors imbue it with that extra, pulsating spark of life that can sometimes get lost within this show's imposing scope. Though none of them plays to a far-distant balcony, their performances are as glorious in their enormity as they are theatrical and, most important, honest. Buckhurst knows what any good director does: that you can mine the script and score for plenty of terror and psychological complexity without needing to force a shopworn gimmick on top of it.

Betsy Morgan, Matt Doyle, Brad Oscar, Joseph Taylor,
Siobhán McCarthy, Alex Finke, and Duncan Smith.
Photo by Joan Marcus

That's why Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy rank either at or near the top of the best Sweeneys and Lovetts I've seen live. (I admittedly missed the role's originators, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.) Their performances are at once full-out melodrama in keeping with the Christopher Bond original that Wheeler adapted, and deeply, truly felt, despite their size. You are forever aware of Secomb's Sweeney shoving down his natural compassion and hopeful self to focus on the task of extracting payback from Judge Turpin for sending him to Australia in chains, stealing his wife Lucy, and then raising Sweeney's daughter as his own. His eyes are lively and burned out, alternately dark and bright windows into his tortured soul. And McCarthy's Lovett is an ideal accomplice for him, constantly shifting between genius and demented, but always grasping a powerful sexuality that lets you know she's in no way afraid to use every tool at her disposal to get what she wants.

They don't skimp on the vocals, either. Although Secomb's voice sits unusually high for Sweeney, it's drenched in dark power that links the man's rage directly to his heart. It comes out most in the classic showpiece "Epiphany," one of the most effective mental breakdowns in song this side of Gypsy's "Rose's Turn," but the force is equally evident in quieter moments like "No Place Like London," "Pretty Women," and "Johanna," as well as the comedic duet "A Little Priest" with Mrs. Lovett. McCarthy does not want for soulfulness in "Poor Thing" or "My Friends" any more than she does calculation in "Wait" or "By the Sea," or frantic desperation in "The Worst Pies in London." She sounds wonderful: weird, yes, but thoroughly mature, and possessing of a broad palette of creative colors designed to pull any situation Lovett's way.

The supporting cast is just as good, with additional transfers Duncan Smith and Joseph Taylor respectively bringing to the judge and the put-upon waif Tobias complex, naturalistic portrayals, and New York stalwarts Matt Doyle (as the seaman Anthony), Betsy Morgan (double-cast as the secret-bearing Beggar Woman and, sigh, con-man barber Pirelli), Alex Finke (Johanna), and Brad Oscar (the Judge's slimy cohort, Beadle Bamford) fitting in seamlessly in terms of both acting and singing. (The latter of which is done without distracting face microphones or, as far as my ears could tell, any electronic amplification at all.)

Even given the tiny three-piece ensemble (I can't quite bring myself to call it an orchestra) under the baton of Matt Aument, and the cutting of so many songs' buttons (an unfathomably popular pastime among British directors of American musicals), this production would be an almost-perfect small-scale rendering of this naturally huge musical if the second act were anywhere near as good as the first. Sadly, it's not. Buckhurst deploys so many clever staging ideas in Act I, from having the actors climb on the tables and provide percussion accompaniment with forks and knives to Sweeney displacing audience members from their seats and using every available square inch of space, that he has nothing left to give post-intermission.

Act II has only one clever notion—its very first—and everything else seems to stymie Buckhurst. He can't make the mounting body count convincing, the scene locations become jumbled and unclear, and the pacing slows to sub-glacial levels. What's worse: Although two songs have been cut ("The Letter" and "City on Fire"), it's not enough to stop the whole thing from just lying there, as if it can't wait to ride out the clock.

It's an impulse you'll understand all too well, especially after the electrifying Act I that proves, even if this method of presentation doesn't really add anything, it also doesn't have to leech away what already works. As it is, this Sweeney Todd is half, but only half, of a great one. But if you put enough value on meat pies, you might well get your money's worth from that one great half and the preshow chowdown all by themselves.

Sweeney Todd
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street between 7th Avenue and West 4th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix