Sweeney Todd Serves Satisfaction

Sweeney Todd Serves Satisfaction

Barrow Street Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been running in downtown Manhattan since February 2017, selling out at almost every performance. Before that, it enjoyed a similarly stellar run in London.

Both times, the show has been a wildly immersive production – the theatre has been turned into a functioning pie shop (essential to the themes of the show), and the cast paces every inch of the theater, surrounding the audience, performing on tables, and even using audience members as props.

Taking place in 19th century London, Sweeney Todd tells the story of Benjamin Barker (played here by a wonderfully dark Hugh Panaro), a wrongfully convicted barber who was sent to Australia on trumped-up criminal charges. The judge who sent him away, Judge Turpin (played by Michael James Leslie), had him convicted because he was in love with Barker’s wife.

Barker returns to London on the ship of sailor Antony (played by Jake Boyd), now calling himself Sweeney Todd and driven nearly mad with revenge after he finds out that Turpin destroyed his family, leading to the death of Todd’s wife, Lucy, and leaving Turpin the guardian of Todd’s daughter, Johanna (played by Eryn Lecroy).

After reconnecting with his landlady, pie-maker Mrs. Lovett (played with delightful mania by Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello) and an impulsive murder, Todd and Lovett scheme to effectively murder the judge and his crony, the Beadle (John Rapson) and keep her failing meat-pie business thriving by luring victims in with offers of Todd’s barbershop services and then murdering them and using the bodies as meat for Lovett’s pies.

Other leading cast members include Stacie Bono and John-Michael Lyles. The ensemble includes Matt Leisy, Liz Pearce, Danny Rothman, Monet Sabel, and Anne Tolpegin.

Other threads of the story include a love affair between Antony and Johanna, and Lovett’s demented crush on Todd. However, Todd’s need for revenge is the driving force of the story.

The entire concept is dark and morbid, and should not be as comedic as it is – but the cast, especially Carmello, sells the audience on the dark humor of it all. One song, “A Little Priest”, is a duet between Todd and Lovett, full of puns and descriptions of their ‘pies’; some of the moments of audience interaction (such as rubbing a hair-growth elixir on the heads of bald men in the crowd during a number) have the audience laughing.

Every actor gives the show their all, vocally and physically. Panaro, who has played the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, is no stranger to playing the lead; he gives Todd a steely exterior and often appears disassociated from the action, despite being keenly aware of the movements of those he seeks revenge against. In the finale of the show, he runs through a range of emotions in just ten minutes, leaving the audience wishing the show would go on forever.

Carmello, as mentioned, plays a dementedly manic Lovett, switching between a puppy-love crush on Todd to a coldly calculating cannibal chef at the drop of a hat. Her machinations, revealed later in the show, are revealed with true horror on Carmello’s face – as someone who has seen three versions of the show, Carolee Carmello is truly the best Lovett there is.

Boyd and LeCroy sell their story as well, providing depth and character to two characters who are usually given very little dimension. As someone who typically hates the character of Antony, I found myself fixated on Boyd’s performance – he adds a haunted degree to Antony as the trauma piles up, and LeCroy performs a sweet and lovely Johanna.

On the other end of the table, Leslie and Rapson are both perfect as antagonists. Rapson is equal parts cruel and simpering as Turpin’s right-hand man, and Leslie plays Turpin with a dangerous degree of self-righteousness – a man who believes that he can do no wrong, even though his actions are clearly amoral at the least.

The staging of an audience in a pie shop allows for a special degree of immersion. The audience sits at several long tables in the middle of the space (as well as two rows of balcony seats, and three tiers of more standard seats along the back wall), and interested attendees can purchase a genuine meat pie (made by Bill Yosses, a former White House pastry chef) to enjoy before the show. The design and lighting of the show make it a visual treat on all levels. Whenever Todd commits a murder (increasingly often, as the show goes on), a single red light flashes; for the show’s bloody finale, the entire theater seems to glow crimson.

Actors prowl back and forth, using the tabletops as aisles, and the functioning kitchen of the pie shop set/theatre becomes a centerpiece in several scenes. This production of Sweeney Todd leans into the show’s morbid, grisly themes, presenting them to the audience before the overture even begins. With wonderfully ingenious staging and a cast that stuns, it’s a hit all around.

PHOTO TAKEN by Kerry Breen