By Tulis McCall
I am trying to put my finger on exactly what makes this production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street so damn compelling. There is the recalled delight in realizing that ANYTHING can be made into a musical if you do it right. Take, for instance, the story of one Sweeney Todd, who’s a barber in his former life was dispatched to Australia because certain men coveted his wife. Newly returned to town, complete with a brand new identity, he seeks revenge. Until he can get his hands on his chosen victims there will be some collateral damage. Sigh. And of course the resulting problem of what to do, what to do, what to do with all those bodies. Never fear. His newly acquired landlady and partner in so much else has a bombshell of an idea. Meat being in short supply, so much so that kittens are at risk of being snatched up, why not use the ready, plump meat provided by them what got a shave that was a little too close? And then of course there are the details of Todd’s daughter to be sorted out, but first things first.
This particular production is transfer of Tooting Arts Club’s Sweeny Todd. The hook was, and is, that the set is a bake shop. In London they took up residence at Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop with the permission of the granddaughter of the original owners who bought the establishment in 1908. In 2014 Beverly Mason said yes to Rachel Edwards, the originating producer, and that was that. The production moved to the West End in 2015, and now it has come home to where it originated. The City of New York.
For this production, the idea of a Bake Shop was kept with the former White House Chef, Bill Yosses, creating the pie and mash that you can enjoy prior to the show. The Barrow Street Theatre has been transformed beyond recognition into a Bake Shop. Plank tables seat customers sic to a side. When your meal is finished it is whisked away and the performance begins while you digest.
The intimacy of the space is captivating. The actors move in and about (the only unfortunate elements is that when they sit in chairs as opposed to on stools, you cannot see them – which is an odd oversight when every other element seems to have been thought through to the nth degree) the tables and customers. The fourth wall comes down with a flourish and then pops back up again. Good (Jeremy Secomb) is a menacing Todd who has no problem getting close as a shave to anyone in the audience. This cast of 10 other actors assumes the role of an entire town as well as the necessary characters of Mrs. Lovett (Siobhán McCarthy), the Evil Judge Turpin (Duncan Smith), the smarmy Beadle (Brad Oscar), the abandoned Johanna, Todd’s daughter (Alex Finke) as well as her suitor Anthony (Matt Doyle) and finally Lovett’s helper the young Tobias Ragg (Joseph Taylor). These actors march through the story like an army on the move. They take no prisoners, especially Todd, and make you sit up and pay attention, not only through their intimacy, but through their plain old skill. This is an ensemble that cares as much about each other as they do about the story.
As the tale winds down, and the sad ending begins to lay itself down like a deck of cards, the shroud of the tale is unfurled and let to fall over all in attendance. Without knowing it we have been seduced into tale, and Sweeney Todd is no longer at arm’s length. His heart and soul, his love, his passion and his tragedy have become ours. You not only leave the theatre filled with good food, you leave filled to the brim with the essence of one man and of all those who orbited his sun.
And that, my friend is mighty fine theatre. I still don’t know how they did it. I just know that they did. This production is magic. Pure and fine.
The Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond, directed by Bill Buckhurst
WITH Jeremy Secomb (Sweeney Todd), Siobhán McCarthy (Mrs. Lovett), Duncan Smith (Judge Turpin), Joseph Taylor (Tobias), Joseph Taylor (Anthony), Alex Finke (Johanna), Betsy Morgan (Pirelli & Beggar Woman) Brad Oscar (The Beadle). Secomb, McCarthy, Morgan, Smith and Taylor will stay with the production for eight weeks only through April 9, 2017.
The Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street) through August 13, 2017. For more information, visit www.SweeneyToddNYC.com.
Sweeney Todd is produced by Rachel Edwards, Jenny Gersten, Seaview Productions, Fiona Rudin, Barrow Street Theatre, Jean Doumanian, Rebecca Gold and Nate Koch (Executive Producer).