To quote one of Stephen Sondheim’s other shows: “You gotta have a gimmick.” And the smash revival of his beloved musical Sweeney Todd at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre has a great one: It’s an immersive production staged in a replica of one of London’s oldest pie shops, complete with aproned waitstaff serving pies cooked up by former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses.
Assuming you’re seated at one of the white-tile communal counters on the orchestra level, there’s no escaping this Victorian revenge tragedy about Sweeney Todd, a bloodthirsty barber who slays those who’ve done him wrong (and anyone who gets in the way), with help from amoral pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett. The versatile cast of eight—now led by Broadway vet Hugh Panaro and three-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello—performs around and sometimes on the tables just a few inches away from you. Prepare to feel chills run up your spine—as saliva or fake blood hit your face.
This singular production was originally mounted in 2014 in London’s Harrington’s Pie & Mash shop by Tooting Arts Club, and the original British leads opened the transfer back in February. But summer brought the new duo—who previously worked together on the short-lived musical Lestat—and their chemistry is palpable, though theirs is an unbalanced, he’s-just-not-that-into-you kind of romance.
The legend of Sweeney Todd first appeared in a Victorian penny dreadful and has been retold many times in print, onscreen, and onstage, though Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony-winning incarnation is the most famous. In case you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen any of the three Broadway productions or Tim Burton’s 2007 movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, well, I don’t want to share any spoilers. Suffice to say that there are more cases of mistaken identity than in a Shakespearean comedy, each character is undone by obsession, and the meat in the pies is Soylent Green.
The Barrow Street revival is more visceral than the original or John Doyle’s stripped-down 2005 Broadway revival. The fourth wall is constantly broken, even before the show begins, as the actors sit at the counters and engage the audience in idle chitchat as “themselves.” Then, without warning, an ear-piercing whistle blows and suddenly you’re thrust into the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Although there’s no chorus or orchestra (a three-piece band of clarinet, violin, and piano provide the instrumentation), the intimacy of the venue means the songs still sound lush and haunting, and they’re beautifully sung by the ensemble. Perhaps in an effort to curtail the macabre, the show’s plentiful humor is emphasized throughout. The Act I closer, “A Little Priest,” with its myriad meat puns, inspires gleeful cackles.
If that means most of the pathos is lost, it’s still an entertaining evening, and certainly the scariest Sweeney you’ll ever see. And this is coming from someone who knows the show by heart, since I played Mrs. Lovett in an amateur production years ago. Yet I still felt my heart rate elevate and jumped a couple of times. Even if you’ve seen Sweeney Todd before, you’ve never experienced it like this: hearty, hilarious, and horrifying.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street (near Seventh Avenue South), Greenwich Village
Through May 27, 2018
Tickets start at $69.50