Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
An immersive production of the classic Sondheim musical arrives in New York via London.
We taste this musical before we ever hear it. As we enter the Barrow Street Theatre, we are handed a plate of pie and mash. It is hearty and comforting (compliments to former White House executive pastry chef Bill Yosses), but a faint bite from the parsley sauce is a harbinger of the show to come. This is Tooting Arts Club's thrillingly immersive revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd, which takes an already great musical and turns it into a heart-pounding visceral experience. This is theater for all five senses.
The production originated at Harrington's Pie and Mash shop in the Tooting neighborhood of London. Set designer Simon Kenny has lovingly transported that shop (down to the hospital green tiles and stained walls) to New York: A large wall menu advertises stewed eels, with and without "licker" (yum). We sit on benches at long communal tables. Ventilation grates hide the instruments for Amy Mae's dramatic lighting, which also incorporates live flame. The scent of burning candle wax mixes with the sweat of the actors, perfectly setting the mood for this Victorian thriller.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd (Jeremy Secomb), a London barber who was banished to Australia when the lecherous Judge Turpin (Duncan Smith) and Beadle Bamford (a very smarmy Brad Oscar) decided they wanted his wife, Lucy, for themselves. Sweeney manages a return when sailor Anthony (Matt Doyle) rescues him at sea, but it is too late: Mrs. Lovett (Siobhán McCarthy), the owner of the pie shop underneath his old digs, tells him that Lucy poisoned herself. Mrs. Lovett convinces him to become a barber again and wait for the right moment to take his revenge. Meanwhile, Anthony has fallen in love with Johanna (Alex Finke), Sweeney's daughter who is living as the Judge's ward. Sweeney, hell-bent on revenge, will cut down anyone in his path. But the question soon becomes: How to dispose of all those corpses?
"Move," Sweeney shouts at one audience member as he looks for a place to stash a body. Secomb plays a man on a mission. His Sweeney has razor blades for eyes and he looks always ready to stab. Secomb combines the efficient physicality of a remorseless killer with a truly lovely singing voice, a synthesis exemplified in the contemplative ballad "Johanna." As he incants the dreamy melody and wistful lyrics, he trains his cold gaze directly into the eyes of a spectator in the front row.
Director Bill Buckhurst excels at drawing out suspense and tension in his staging, which uses every part of the room: Secomb performs "Epiphany," in which Sweeney determines that all of humanity deserves to die, directly in our faces, sometimes grabbing audience members and offering them a "shave." It's an operatic mad scene to rival Donizetti, but McCarthy cuts in before the audience has a chance to applaud. "That's all very well," she says, and we laugh from sheer relief. As a result, Secomb and McCarthy's rendition of "A Little Priest" is the funniest I've ever heard, with Mrs. Lovett pitching her cannibalistic business plan like she's trying to convince the judges on Shark Tank.
As Mrs. Lovett, McCarthy marries the comic instincts of Lucille Ball with the psychotic determination of Kathy Bates in Misery. She is determined to have her happily-ever-after, a trait that makes her increasingly terrifying as the show goes on. We think she may have a heart because of the affection she shows the orphan Tobias (an adorable Joseph Taylor), but even that becomes suspect: Is he just a lapdog, an accessory to her picture-perfect life? Psychologically, she's a figure straight out of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Sondheim has written that Sweeney Todd is his tribute to Hollywood composers like Bernard Herrmann (who wrote underscoring for Hitchcock). One of the great pleasures of the 2007 film starring Johnny Depp is hearing the lush score played by a giant studio orchestra. Of course, director John Doyle proved with his 2005 Broadway revival (which famously featured Patti LuPone playing the tuba) that the show could be just as exciting using 10 actor-musicians. This version scales it back even further: eight actors, three musicians (a piano, violin, and clarinet). While the orchestrations are certainly far thinner than Sondheim likely ever envisioned, inventive music director Matt Aument (with an assist from arranger Benjamin Cox) has managed to keep many of the little details that make Sweeney Todd such a hair-raising musical drama, like the sinister violin that invades Toby's sweet second-act ballad, "Not While I'm Around." The performers also augment the small band with makeshift percussion, clinking silverware together in a manner both rhythmic and threatening.
Tooting Arts Club's production is full of such memorable surprises. It pulls us into the heart of the story like no other musical playing in New York right now. When the chorus sings, "No one can help, nothing can hide you— / Isn't that Sweeney there beside you," we instinctively turn, terrified of what is lurking in the darkness.