*Sweeney Todd,* 5/27/17
I saw *Sweeney Todd* at Barrow Street Theatre on 5/27/17. I've seen the show many times and now am putting it up there with *Gypsy* as one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. Did you notice that both shows have lyrics by Stephen Sondheim? Good work. I've listed all of my *Sweeney* productions below, each of them unique, each with their own particular (ahem) flavor.
I need to do a small spoiler before I continue: *Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,* is a musical about an escaped convict who returns to 19th century London to reunite with his wife and daughter and exact his revenge on those who had wrongfully imprisoned him. He meets up with Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a pie shop, and they form a grisly partnership: he kills people and she uses them for her meat pies.
This production originated in London in 2014. Producer Rachel Edwards had the inspired idea of staging the show at Harrington's Pie and Mash, the oldest pie shop in London (opened in 1908). The owner of the pie shop (and great granddaughter of the original owners) said yes, and the show played there for six weeks. Then they replicated Harrington's in London's West End (their equivalent of Broadway) in 2015, and ran there for thirteen weeks.
They opened in Greenwich Village in March. I've seen a few shows at Barrow Street over the years: *Bug* and *The Flick* used your typical rows-of-seats-facing-a-raised-stage configuration, but their revelatory production of *Our Town* remade the theater by removing the raised stage and putting the audience on three sides of a very small playing space in the center. That production starred Helen Hunt as the stage manager and was one of the most profound and startling things I've seen in my life. I wish I had reviewed it at the time.
I'm adding this show to the profound and startling list! I wonder if intense familiarity with the work at hand leads to a more profound and startling experience? That certainly was the case with *Our Town* and *Sweeney*... Ah well, that's a discussion for another time (or not). So the Barrow Street Theater has been transformed into Harrington's Pie and Mash. We enter down a narrow corridor and then come into the "pie shop," with the counter on the left, six long tables with benches (six seats on each side) closest to the playing area, four more rows of seats facing front, and four more in the balcony. I sat at one of the tables close to the action.
Audience members have the option of seeing the show with or without a pie (meat or veggie), but I figured as long as I'm forking out (gulp) $135 for a ticket, why not fork out the additional (guh-ulp) $22.50 for a meat pie and mash?
Yes, a screeching halt. I paid that much money to see a show? I see most shows, on Broadway or off, opera, dance or whatever, for under $50 - - sometimes up to $80, rarely up to $100. So why would I pay so much money to see a show I had seen many times before, when I am, as I like to say, close with a dollar? Four reasons:
1. The pie shop concept was interesting to me. I always enjoy these "environmental theatre" productions and feel that proximity to the actors gives a special intimacy to the performance.
2. My friends Stephen and Robert saw it and raved about it. And I trust their opinion.
3. It was getting strong buzz in town, and that buzz has never let me down. Furthermore, I've learned that when I ignored the buzz and thought only of my pocketbook (*The Boy From Oz* and the Brian Dennehy/Vanessa Redgrave/Philip Seymour Hoffman/Robert Sean Leonard *Long Day's Journey Into Night*), I've lived to regret it.
And 4. I was thinking of you, dear people! I'm considering myself a serious and legit critic since I launched my website in February, and that gave me a definite boost to shell out the cash.
Let's start with the pie itself.
The pie maker was Bill Yosses, chef/owner of The Perfect Pie here in NYC and former Executive Pastry Chef at the White House from 2007 to 2014. The producers of the show, probably sensing some trepidation on the part of the consumer, have thoughtfully listed the ingredients of the pie on their website:
"Flaky Crust Chicken Pot Pie with Mushrooms, Carrots, Onions, Jerusalem Artichokes, Black Truffle Zest, served with Yukon Gold Smashed Potatoes and optional Italian Parsley & Herbs Sauce."
It was flaky and delicious.
I had hoped that there would be some camaraderie with the people at my table, but they were either talking with the person they came with or playing with their phones.
I struck up a conversation with the guy across from me and his teenage son, and they were polite, but didn't really engage. I had better luck with the woman across from me, who showed up later, with her tween son. They had seen *Charlie and the Chocolate Factory* the night before and liked it a lot (in spite of the reviews). They live in Delaware and come to NYC every couple of months to see a show. His favorite show is *Wicked,* they also loved *Something Rotten.* The son got some attention from the performers during the show - - he was sitting on the aisle and was awfully cute.
The large cast and chorus and full orchestra of the original production were whittled down to a cast of eight and an instrumental trio (clarinet, violin, and piano). The storytelling and the construction of the music are strong enough that they can withstand a lot of tinkering: the narrowing of forces brought a sharper focus to the drama.
Sweeney was played by Norm Lewis. I'd seen him a few times, most memorably as Porgy in *The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.* He had a warm, lovely, open quality in that role, and I was a quite curious to see what he would bring to the role of Sweeney. He won me over from his first moment onstage, on the red stairway you see above, backlit by a blinding white light (a star entrance for the ages). He was monumental and full of power. I realized that what Lewis has is charisma: he exudes a magnetism that draws you in and makes you care. This can be applied to Porgy or Sweeney or the Phantom (he was the first African-American to play the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway). He was extraordinary.
Mrs. Lovett was played by Carolee Carmello. I had seen her twice, in a winner and in a stinker: the winner was the production of *Show Boat* that Susan Glass and I saw at Carnegie Hall in 2008 (also starring Nathan Gunn and Celena Shafer, who appear in my *Sweeney* appendix below). She played Julie, and her performance of "Bill" stopped the show in a way that I had never experienced before, it was tremendous. The stinker was *Scandalous,* the now infamous Broadway musical about Aimee Semple McPherson, with lyrics and a book by Kathie Lee Gifford. The lights came up at intermission on that show, Richard turned to me and said, "What do you think?" I said, "I can't run out of here fast enough." Carmello did her best to make a silk purse out of that sow's ear, she was workin' hard up there. Of course her material in *Sweeney Todd* was infinitely richer (infinitely!), and she relished the opportunity. She nailed the British music hall quality of the character and also plumbed the sadness and loneliness at her core.
The guy playing Beadle and various other parts looked familiar but I couldn't place him - - it was Brad Oscar, who played Nostradamus in *Something Rotten.* Director Bill Blackhurst clearly worked hard to develop unity in the ensemble, working with music director Matt Aument. Aument made me stand up and take notice with a freaking diphthong! One of the lines in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is "Freely flows the blood of those who moralize," and the final syllable of "moralize" is held for a few measures. That sound has a diphthong, one vowel moving into another, and when you have more than one singer doing this, it has to be well paced or it'll sound crappy. That move from Ah to Ee was thrilling in its exactness. Thank you, Mr. Aument!
Of course the excitement of the show was magnified by having the actors so close - - they often walked on our tables and interacted with members of the audience. But the greatest impact of the small setting was the lack of amplification of the singers. Now, I'm not one of those people who feels that musicals shouldn't be amplified. It needs to be done well, and honestly, doesn't it make the performer's job a little easier? But I can't tell you how striking it was to hear the performers' voices coming out of their mouths exactly as they had produced them, as small or as large as they had decided. It made the show so much more direct and powerful. I want to see more of this!
* * *
A Tour Through My Sweeneys
1982: a PBS telecast of the original Broadway production
Sweeney: George Hearn
Mrs. Lovett: Angela Lansbury
Antony: Cris Groenendaal
Johanna: Betsy Joslyn
Judge Turpin: Edmund Lyndeck
Beggar Woman: Sara Woods
Director: Harold Prince for the stage, Terry Hughes for television
1989: UW Opera
Sweeney: James Rensink
Mrs. Lovett: Lori Poulson
Antony: Dan Ihasz
Johanna: Katrina van Dreel
Judge Turpin: L. Joe Dahl
Beggar Woman: Sarah Sjolie Parks
Director: Ross Freese
[I was in the chorus, and had the rare pleasure of having my throat cut and going down the chute]
2002: Lyric Opera of Chicago
Sweeney: Bryn Terfel
Mrs. Lovett: Judith Christin
Antony: Nathan Gunn
Johanna: Celena Shafer
Judge Turpin: Timothy Nolen
Beggar Woman: Sheri Greenawald
Director: Neil Armfield
2005: Broadway revival
Sweeney: Michael Cerveris
Mrs. Lovett: Patti LuPone
Antony: Benjamin Magnuson
Johanna: Lauren Molina
Judge Turpin: Mark Jacoby
Beggar Woman: Diana DiMarzio
Director: John Doyle
Sweeney: Johnny Depp
Mrs. Lovett: Helena Bonham Carter
Antony: Jamie Campbell Bower
Johanna: Jayne Wisener
Judge Turpin: Alan Rickman
Beggar Woman: Laura Michelle Kelly
Director: Tim Burton
2014: New York Philharmonic
Sweeney: Bryn Terfel
Mrs. Lovett: Emma Thompson
Antony: Jay Armstrong
Johanna: Erin Morley
Judge Turpin: Philip Quast
Beggar Woman: Bryonha Marie Parham
Director: Lonny Price
2017: Barrow Street Theatre
Sweeney: Norm Lewis
Mrs. Lovett: Carolee Carmello
Antony: Matt Doyle
Johanna: Alex Finke
Judge Turpin: Jamie Jackson
Beggar Woman: Stacie Bono
Director: Bill Buckhurst