by Brian Scott Lipton
They have over two dozen Broadway credits (and four Tony Award nominations) between them, but Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello have found their respective roles of a lifetime in, of all places, a tiny Off-Broadway house—one that has been transformed by the ingenious designer Simon Kenny into a working meat pie shop.
As you may have guessed, I’m talking about the leading parts in Bill Buckhurst’s remarkably inventive staging of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 masterwork Sweeney Todd, which first opened at the Barrow Street Theatre in February. But whether or not you have seen this production already, go now!
While I wondered if a second viewing would dim my delight, rest assured, this singular production holds up extremely well. Primarily, that’s because Buckhurst has managed to find that elusive mix of macabre, mirth, and melodrama in Hugh Wheeler’s perfectly crafted book (adapted from Christopher Bond’s play) about an escaped convict who has returned to London to seek vengeance on those who have wronged him.
Moreover, the director’s immersive staging (which may include having the show’s actors directly in your face, crawling on your table—or maybe even rubbing your head) feels like much more than just a gimmick here; it’s almost hard to imagine the show being done any other way. (That said, I still have occasional nightmares about the Grand Guignol-like original Broadway production!)
Still, the production wouldn’t succeed nearly as well without this cast, all of whom craft vivid characterizations and handle Sondheim’s cleverly complex score with aplomb. The imposing Lewis, who can be a master of suave charm, is anything but as the so-called “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”: he’s colder than ice and utterly terrifying (especially if he fixes his steely gaze directly on you!). His Todd, we instantly realize, is a man who would as easily cut your throat as give you a smile. Further, using the lowest range of his baritone voice brilliantly, Lewis brings true gravitas to such haunting songs as “My Friends” and “Johanna.”
As for Carmello, she may be my favorite Mrs. Lovett ever, bringing a deeply comic sensibility and inner vulnerability to the role, without sacrificing the murderous piemaker’s amorality. Moreover, a singer with (you should pardon the pun) a killer voice, her renditions of the delicious “Worst Pies in London,” the wickedly funny “A Little Priest” and the daffy yet slightly sorrowful “By the Sea,” are simply superb.
The supporting cast is also razor-sharp. (Oh, pardon that pun too!) Two-time Tony nominee Brad Oscar is properly pompous as the Judge’s henchman, Beadle Bamford, and lends his remarkably versatile voice to the many group numbers. Alex Finke deserves considerable credit for making a true flesh-and-blood character of Todd’s now-teenaged daughter Johanna, often played as little more than a ditzy damsel in distress, while the handsome and earnest Matt Doyle is her ideal counterpart as Antony, the naïve yet headstrong sailor who falls instantly in love with her.
In slightly smaller parts, John-Michael Lyles is believably innocent as the young Tobias; Jamie Jackson is extraordinarily convincing as the conflicted yet perverse Judge Turpin; and Stacie Bono is excellent in the dual roles of the half-mad beggar woman and preening Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli.
I admit that, as much as I loved it, it’s possible that this small-scale production (which only uses three musicians) may not top everyone’s “Best Ever Sweeney Todd” list. Still, I suspect no matter whatever reservations you might have, you’ll have to concur with me: “God That’s Good.”
Sweeney Todd continues at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue South) through December 31. Visit www.sweeneytoddnyc.com for tickets.
Photos: Joan Marcus