The meal isn’t worth the money, but the show sure is.
To make SWEENEY TODD more of an immersive experience, The Barrow St. Theatre has been transformed into Harrington’s.
The name won’t mean much to most Americans, but Londoners know well this “pie-and-mash” shop that opened even before the Palladium did.
Harrington’s is where this SWEENEY actually played in the South West End three years ago. Because New York doesn’t have a Harrington’s, Barrow Street’s main floor has now been outfitted with a restaurant counter in front of orphanage-like tables buttressed by benches. Patrons have the choice of dining 75 minutes before an effective and startlingly innovative minimalist production of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest achievement takes the stage.
Actually, there is no stage per se. Simon Kenny’s set also makes that restaurant counter Mrs. Lovett’s place of business. Next to it is a steep and very narrow stairway – and that’s about it for playing space, what with the three-piece band needing its piece of the real estate pie.
Producers can’t make much money in a theater that’s been reconfigured to accommodate a mere 130. The extraction of 70 seats may be the reason why each patron’s meat or vegetable pie isn’t much bigger than his iPhone. No one will fill up on the matter-of-fact serving of mashed potatoes that’s garnished with liquor.
Don’t get excited. “Liquor” is the British term for parsley sauce. However, a glass of wine or beer (or a can of soft drink) is dispensed with each meal.
But $22.50 and no dessert? To paraphrase a Sondheim lyric from another of his shows, “Lookie, lookie, here comes NO cookie.”
Enough! Let’s get to the real meat of the evening, which is terrific down to those long tables that serve as part of the stage. Joseph Taylor’s fine Tobias jumps onto the tables and tries to sell us Pirelli’s not-so-miraculous elixir – and doesn’t stop there. He actually takes the profound liberty of rubbing it on the heads of bald audience members. (Let’s hope that Sweeney’s strong suspicion that it’s urine is NOT the case.)
Jeremy Secomb’s Sweeney doesn’t solely tell Mrs. Lovett “they all deserve to die”; he jumps off the table and screams it to all sitting nearby, implying that these people are destined to be his next victims.
Here’s hoping that Norm Lewis doesn’t have vertigo, for when he and Carolee Carmello take over the leads on April 11, he’s going to have to stand upright and move fleetingly from table to table at a breakneck pace that just might break his neck. (Secomb, you be careful, too.)
Not only will the actors literally be in your face, but they’ll also often acknowledge your presence. The excellent Matt Doyle, who plays the lovesick sailor Anthony, was in front of me when he sang “I’ll steal you, Johanna.” He belted it with such fervor that my head instinctively jerked up. He took it as a nod of approval and patted my shoulder in appreciation.
You may nod, too, but you won’t nod off. Even with a mere octet’s worth of voices, the sound is very loud thanks to a “theater” that’s smaller than many Manhattan apartments. Amplification isn’t needed, and its absence allows us to hear the glory of Sondheim’s score without any electronic juicing.
Loudest and most potent of all is Secomb. He’s foreboding enough at the start where he’s red-hot for revenge, but in short order he becomes white-hot. Although Secomb stalks the premises much like an upright gorilla, he doesn’t overlook the subtleties. Don’t miss his astonished and contemptuous eye-shift when Mrs. Lovett virtually proposes to him.
Secomb, in conjunction with Bill Buckhurst’s direction that’s as sharp as Todd’s razor, has an especially tense moment when Sweeney realizes that Johanna has witnessed his crimes. (Here Alex Finke’s Johanna seems more worthy of being saved, for she isn’t as silly as the character is usually played.) Note too that after Sweeney accomplishes his revenge, Secomb’s face reveals a sadness that says he has nothing to live for. Mrs. Lovett has turned out to be right: “Half the fun is to plan the plan.”
More than half the fun is witnessing Siobhan McCarthy’s Nellie Lovett, arguably musical theater’s most amoral “heroine.” McCarthy looks as if she heard that the musical version of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is back on and the Bette Davis role is still up for grabs. She’s as crazy as the Beggar Woman (an on-target Betsy Morgan), only in a different and more clandestine way.
As crudely as Mrs. Lovett has been written, McCarthy manages to make the word “beautiful” quite beautiful when singing “There Was a Barber and His Wife.” How joyous to hear the audience reaction to McCarthy’s suddenly going low on “The Worst Pies in London.” A testament to Sondheim’s achievement is that many now know each note of the song (and the rest of the glorious score) and were delightfully surprised by the maverick move.
Mrs. Lovett isn’t crazy enough to leap onto a table so those on the main floor will have no trouble seeing her – which isn’t true of many other characters. If you sit downstairs, you’ll give out a thousand cranes of the neck in an effort to see what’s happening a few tables away. This is one time that the best seats aren’t necessarily the best seats; the mezzanine, with its more comfy conventional theater seating, may be a better place to take it all in.
The masochistic version of “Johanna” that Judge Turpin (a solid Duncan Smith) delivers loses the whip and is merely a soliloquy. It’s symbolic of a SWEENEY that prefers off-stage violence. That should please those who were traumatized by the throat-cutting in the 2007 film. This production’s only cuts are minor ones in the script and score. Neither a green finch nor a linnet bird is on hand, which at least means that Beadle Bamford won’t commit an act of avicide. Still, the always reliable Brad Oscar has plenty to do as the Beadle and does it with splendidly appropriate creepiness.
Purists probably won’t be horrified with the excisions, for every essential is here. Intermission aside, Buckhurt’s production never stops to take a breath during the two hours and twenty-five minutes of actual playing time.
The Tony-winning musical is often called “Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD,” but let’s not overlook bookwriter Hugh Wheeler’s accomplishments. In the middle of Act Two, Tobias enters to tell Mrs. Lovett he suspects something is terribly wrong but can’t put his finger on it. Then Mrs. Lovett takes out her purse and he recognizes it as the one that once belonged to his former employer who mysteriously disappeared. A lesser writer would have put Tobias in that terribly tired situation of walking in at the wrong time, say, while Sweeney and she were in the middle of some nefarious act. Wheeler also knew that by having Mrs. Lovett’s taking out the purse, she implicates herself, making for one of the comparatively few times in life when blind justice does seem to have its sight restored.
Also worth noting is that every time Lovett comes out with a lie she doesn’t preface it with the wearisome “Oh – uh – well, um, you see” that so many hacks use in fear that the audience won’t otherwise know the person is fibbing. Anyone in real life hearing an “Oh – uh – well, um, you see” in response to his question would KNOW the person is lying. So did Wheeler; so does Buckhurst, McCarthy and Taylor.
Back in 1989, the York Theatre Company did a SWEENEY that made it to Broadway. Because it had a cast of 14 compared to the original’s 27 – and it played in the small theater situated below the first production’s mammoth one — it was dubbed TEENY TODD. Our current iteration has eight cast members in a space perhaps nine-tenths smaller still, so we’ll call it TEENY TINY TODD – but also add a subtitle: WITH A TITANIC IMPACT. For this SWEENEY TODD is substantially bigger than the sum of its parts.