Review: A ‘Sweeney Todd’ That Lets You Eat Your Pie And Have It, Too

Joan Marcus

It was the best of pies, it was the worst of pies. Benjamin Barker, AKA Sweeney Todd, has set up his terrifying tonsorium in Greenwich Village, and in contrast to John’s of Bleecker Street around the block, where you can’t get a slice but only a pie, at Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, you can get both a pie and sliced.

The pies we’re talking about here are, of course, the meat variety (though an equally delicious vegetarian alternative is on offer) made famous by Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, serving “the worst pies in London.”

"Sweeney Todd."
“Sweeney Todd.” Joan Marcus

For a $20 surcharge on your ticket, you may arrive early at the temporarily unrecognizable Barrow Street Theatre, ingeniously transformed into a facsimile of Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, the venerated London establishment where this immersive production made its debut before producer Cameron Mackintosh moved it to the Strand. Seated at long communal tables that later will serve as part of the playing area, you can enjoy your flaky pie (no pussies popped in, presumably, and no human parts, either – though a collaboration with Netflix’ Santa Clarita Diet could be profitable for both enterprises) and a drink while chatting up the neighbors.

This revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 grand guignol masterpiece originated under the banner of the Tooting Arts Club. (Yes, it’s a thing, not to be confused with the tooting arts club that performed John Doyle’s 2005 revival in which the actors, including the Mrs. Lovett of Patti LuPone on tuba, played their own instruments.) Both productions reduced Harold Prince’s epic original to bite-size chunks that, to get serious for a moment, diminished the enterprise. For – as we learn from George, of Sunday In The Park With fame – to fully appreciate a canvas, you need to step back a bit, add perspective and context, let the eye and brain work their transformational magic, turning individual colors into a more meaningful tapestry. Into art.

Siobhán McCarthy.
Siobhán McCarthy. Joan Marcus

So while I am no fan of these mini-Sondheims, there are many pleasures to recommend this revival, adroitly staged by Bill Buckhurst in Simon Kenny’s uncanny setting. Atop the menu are Jeremy Secomb, truly, mesmerizingly terrifying in the title role, and Siobhán McCarthy, nuttily endearing as Mrs. Lovett. Catch them soon: After recreating their acclaimed performances from London they (along with several other original cast members) will be replaced in April by the equally estimable but herein unreviewed Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello. Secomb, especially, has lasers for eyes that cut through you (unsettling, when he’s as close as the end of your nose) and a gift for dementedness that will either delight you or make you upchuck that tasty pie.

The other roles are superbly cast as well: Bass-baritone Duncan Smith, also from the original cast, is rumblingly malign as Judge Turpin, and Brad Oscar is aptly weasel-like as Beadle Bamford. Matt Doyle and Alex Finke are wide-eyed innocence as Anthony and Johanna, and there are strong contributions from Betsy Morgan and Joseph Taylor.

The book has been shorn in ways I don’t completely love – I missed Tobias’ gruesome discovery in the grinding room, as well as the tooth-pulling part of Sweeney’s duel with Pirrelli. Benjamin Cox’s arrangements for trio (piano, violin and clarinet) have their charms, but power doesn’t figure in the mix. Like those pies at the outset, this Sweeney Todd provides delectable finger food (sorry) when what you really want is the full meal.

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