The room was raucous with noise, as you might expect from a bustling Manhattan restaurant. Then, without warning, the lights went out. The crowd went from jovially rowdy to deathly silent in an instant in that darkness. Together, we waited. Then a single match was struck, revealing by its flickering light the piano player, who wore a barely visible smirk. And so began Barrow Street Theatre’s mesmerizing and inventive production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Staged in a room converted to resemble a pie shop that’s seen better days, this production goes immersive in some thrilling and unexpected ways. First and foremost, the tables at which the audience sits act as an extension of the metaphorical stage. The performers sometimes sit at the table’s heads to belt out the show’s trembling choruses from these positions. Or they’ll stomp down the tables as if they were runways, alleys, or an escape from the insanity of this homicide-rich dark comedy. Todd terrifies up close, throwing himself and his blades into the crowd with a delicious menace. And bald men beware when Toby unveils Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, you will be slathered. (See an image of the pie shop here.)
But even before the show begins, there’s an added layer of twisted immersion as the Barrow Street Theater teamed up with Obama-era White House Executive Pastry Chef, Bill Yosses, to divine a savory pie and mash menu . In for a pence in for a pound, so we got one of each option.
I’m not usually one for the veggie option, but the promises of so much cheese swayed me. I regret nothing. This was positively delicious, and accompanied by a glass of wine served as a divine appetizer to the meal that would be this meaty, mad show.
Sweeney Todd is a tale of revenge, where the eponymous barber returns to London, seeking to reconnect with his long lost wife and daughter, and to slay the judge who banished him. He finds a darkly charming ally in Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a vile little pie shop. Together, they plot to murder and make a mint off of this man-eat-man world.
I’ve always been a sucker for Mrs. Lovett, an immoral opportunist who has a deep romantic streak. Clearly relishing the role, Carolee Carmello is a force of nature, belting out Sondheim’s trickiest lyrics with aplomb, then bawdily spitting deliveries for saucy jokes. More than any other Mrs. Lovett I’ve seen, she bleeds in a contagious fear of her lethal paramour, which gives goosebumps amid giggles. Carmello is a sensational pairing to Hugh Panaro’s Sweeney Todd, who begins stiff, but blooms into manic, and ultimately even playful as the pair spin into the macabre comedy genius of “Little Priest.” Their banter over which people would make for the best meat pies becomes increasingly giddy to the point where they are laughing as loud as the audience. It feels like we’re in on the joke. But this feeling festers into something darker and more disturbing in the second act.
Full Disclosure: When the Beggar Woman leaned on my table and sang, looking me straight in the eyes, I trembled then wept.
Remarkably, Barrow Street Theater does this incredible, complicated musical with a cast of seven! Several of the actors play multiple roles, swinging from Anthony, the judge, or Johanna to the chorus, pie shop customers, sidewalk gawkers, etc. with a curt change of costume, like the addition of a raggedy hat or jacket. But the biggest turn comes from Stacie Bono, who leaps from playing the deranged Beggar Woman to pompous Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli, and back again. In the former, she is pitiable and volatile, racing around in a ratty black cape that makes her seem like a cryptic crone from a children’s fairy tale. In the latter, she’s jubilant and pompous, swanning around with a fake mustache and the tantalizing tease of fraud that plays as a wink to those who know the show.
John-Michael Lyles portrays her put-upon Toby, who bounds from harried hype-man to earnest defender when he meets Mrs. Lovett. And boy, do he and Carmello make a feast of “Not While I’m Around!” That song always kills me, but between Lyles’s wide-eyed passion and Carmello’s foreboding looks to the audience, I was folded onto the counter before me, wishing I could reach out and do something to intervene and stop the horror I knew was coming.
I’ve loved Sweeney Todd since I was in high school, when a theater friend lent me the soundtrack and blew my mind. Until then, I had no idea musicals were allowed to be this dark and angry, while still being blisteringly funny. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few production since then, on stage and screen. And yet I’ve always loathed the Johanna/Anthony thread. Their songs so pretty and trilling, their faces so cherubic, they seem like they belong in a different show altogether. Basically, they’d always been a drag on my enjoyment. But props to Eryn Lecroy and Jake Boyd, who managed to bring out the reckless teenage lust and find the humor in this show’s angelic young lovers.
Boyd makes himself a rom-com hero, falling all over the set to exert Anthony’s naive enthusiasm for this girl he’s never met. Instead of cringing through the whole of Anthony’s love song, I was chuckling and rooting for him! With a delivery that is laced with rage, Lecroy created a Johanna more fiery than I’d ever seen. This makes her less pathetic and more proactive in the second act, which actually makes more sense for the character’s arc. And beyond that, Lecroy actually managed to score laughs amid her love songs, like when she stops cold and almost giggles as she turns to her would-be fiancé Anthony, and remarks in embarrassment, “I still don’t know your name!”
Together, this ensemble sings and rages in a set that feels like cage. And we are trapped with them, spiking the tension of every kill. It’s an exhilarating experience made all the more astounding by the fact that the show’s music is performed by a three-piece band made up of a pianist, a clarinet player, and a violinist. Ahead of time, I was dubious that the score could be satisfyingly played by so small an orchestra. But by the end, I marveled how three musicians built a swelling world of sound and emotion. At curtain call, I was standing, applauding, and screaming with excitement.
Directed by Bill Buckhurst, Barrow Street Theatre’s Sweeney Todd is a bitingly hilarious, and uniquely thrilling. Though gore fans might be disappointed that red lighting takes the place of stage blood, the immersive elements of the stage design to the pies and the cabaret choreography of actors plunging into the audience makes this a powerful and astounding revival that shouldn’t be missed.