In 2014, Tooting Arts Club staged a production of Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s – London’s oldest working pie and mash shop. The immersive experience allowed audience members to arrive early and have their very own pie and mash before the show. This Off-Broadway transfer at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City uses a replica of the original pie-shop, and keeps up the pre-show tradition, employing former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses as its official pie maker. No, sadly I didn’t opt for a pre-show pie, but the atmosphere remains unique and this is an excellent production of Sondheim’s operatic masterpiece about a barber intent on seeking revenge against The Judge who had him transported as a convict on false charges, and who seduced and raped his wife, and is raising his daughter as his ward.
I have to start by raving about Carolee Carmello because wow, what a performance! As Mrs. Lovett she displays excellent comic timing, and is both appropriately pragmatic, and sympathetic. I think there’s often a tendency for actresses playing the role to air on the side of comedy, singing in a harsh or less pleasant manner. Carmello finds just the right balance, singing the role every bit as well as she acts it. Her exchange with Lewis’ Sweeney Todd in “A Little Priest” (“good you got it”) is absolutely hilarious, and her Mrs. Lovett is fully alive and energetic without ever being over-the-top.
Norm Lewis is undoubtedly the best-sung Sweeney Todd I’ve ever heard. His baritone fits the operatic style of Sondheim’s masterpiece to a tee, but unfortunately his acting is less impressive. His Sweeney seems to vacillate between two extremes, becoming either a stone-faced expressionless man or one who shouts in uncontrolled fury. Its an approach that renders the character less sympathetic and less deserving of pity than he should be by the end of the play, and I sorely missed the nuance in Lewis’ performance. I was also disappointed by Norm Lewis’ take on “Epiphany”, a pivotal soliloquy for the character, which he decided to shout. The choice completely baffled me because it meant there was no use of dynamics, no building to a climactic moment, just a furious one-note yelling throughout.
Slight side rant here to say that whether it’s an actor’s choice based on what he’s seen done before or a decision in directing, I don’t understand this choice to play a big song for an anti-hero or antagonist character as straight anger! Unfortunately it’s something I’ve seen more than once with Javert’s Soliloquy in Les Miserables, and both in Les Mis and in Sweeney Todd it has the effect of robbing the audience of the natural pity and emotion they should be feeling for the character. In Norm Lewis’ case, it’s all the more frustrating because he has such a fine baritone that a sung-through take on the song would undoubtedly be impressive, and help with some of the acting issues I had with his performance.
Norm Lewis was the only thing in this fabulous Off-Broadway production that I was not wild about though. Alex Finke, who I loved in Les Miserables last year, is the kind of actress who can make even a somewhat shallowly written character, like ingenue Johanna, feel three-dimensional. Spirited and beautifully sung with a clear soprano, Finke’s Johanna was one I rooted for. More than any other actress I’ve seen perform this role, she portrays the fear and despair Johanna feels at being trapped in her situation.
It helps that Finke has such an able partner in Matt Doyle’s youthful and likable Anthony. Their chemistry is strong enough to overcome the slightly ridiculous idea of two people falling in love through a window, and I believed in their connection. Jamie Jackson was another standout as Judge Turpin, superb in voice and acting ability, and suitably creepy. An interesting choice is made to cast Pirelli as a woman, and in this case it works well.
The replica pie-shop set is small, but the staging is thoughtful, using both levels of the theatre, the shop’s counter area, a staircase, and the long bench seated tables where audience members sit to tell the tale. This space is used to the fullest, most ingeniously when the intermission is (politely) kicked out of their seats to the lobby during intermission so that the crew can make over Mrs. Lovett’s original rundown establishment into the spruced up, more popular pie shop it becomes as soon as a more abundant pie filling is decided upon by Lovett and Todd. Audience interaction is a factor here if you’re sitting on the main level, but it’s done in a way that’s entertaining, rather than over-the-top or unnecessary.
Sitting in the balcony seats on the upper level (all that was left when we purchased tickets) meant that I felt a little removed from the action, but the seats do offer an excellent view of the stage in the small Barrow Street Theatre. A note on the seats though: the balcony seats, at least for a woman of average height, are undoubtedly THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE seats I have ever sat in for a show. Both me and the two women I saw the show with were not able to touch the ground from the high bench-seating, which forced us to brace our feet either on the bar under our seats or on part of the balcony railing in front of us, not exactly a comfortable way to see a show! I would go back and see this production again in a heartbeat if it were in a different theatre, but the seating experience was so painful that I’d think twice about returning to the pie-shop balcony. I have no idea whether the floor seats are more comfortable or not, but for those audience members who are short or who have disability issues, I can’t recommend sitting in the upper level.
The actors are accompanied by a three-piece on-stage orchestra, and vocally there is not a weak link among the cast. This makes Sondheim’s operatic score a treat to listen to. I’m sorry to have missed Jeremy Secomb, who originated the role of Sweeney Todd in this production and in the original London Tooting Arts Club show, but it’s still a strong production worth seeing… just beware of those balcony seats!
Sweeney Todd is booking into 2018 Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City.