Sweeney Todd

The Best Blood-Filled Evening Off Broadway

When is a theater a theater?  When it holds within it a play.  And when is theater great theater.  Go along to the tiny Barrow Street venue close to Christopher Street station and you will find out.  For there, you will find one of the finest productions of one to the finest plays to grace the boards of performance houses anywhere.

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ (book by Hugh Wheeler) is one of those pieces of drama that can be defined in many ways.  Opera, Musical Theater, thriller, horror show, comedy…in fact it is all, mixed into one.

Get Tickets to the Sweeney Todd

Tickets may be hard to come by, but the best seats can still be had.

The Dank, Dark World Of Victorian England

The story centers on the actions of the eponymous protagonist, Sweeney, who is, of course, a barber in London’s run-down Fleet Street.  The dank street in Victorian England during which the play is set home to all that is most suspect in that most suspect era of British history.  (Becoming the burgeoning home of the British newspaper Industry did little for the road’s reputation.)

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Sweeney is a vicious, heartless and ultimately greedy man who sees an opportunity to utilize his cut throat razor to deliver a much closer shave than his customers request.  Their slit throated bodies are then recycled as the filling for Mrs Lovett’s pies, which are made next door.  Lovett, too, is without compassion, instead she is consumed by with pure avarice.  But she makes a decent pie, and her reputation as the finest maker in London is soon established.

One Of Theater’s Greatest Scenes

Yet the story is about much more than this.  Yes, greed is a theme, but also corruption is explored, through the acts of the fearsome Judge Turpin.  What makes the play so remarkable is that all of these dark metaphors are delivered through joyously funny lyrics.  The scene in which Sweeney dispatches customer after customer, while delivering comic lines in the style of a light, operatic ballad is up there with the great moments in modern theater – the helicopter in ‘Miss Saigon’, the barricade in ‘Les Mis’, the Angry Dance at the end of the first act of ‘Billy Elliot’ and the 39 Lashes in ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’.  But in many ways, the scene’s use of humor means that it surpasses even these astonishing moments.

Perfect Venue

So, lots of praise for Sondheim’s masterpiece, which he once dubbed as his ‘gift to London’.  Yet the production at New York’s Barrow theater goes a step further.  Firstly, the choice of venue could not be better.  The intimate theater has been adapted to include long dining benches, where audience members can, for a fee, get their own pie.  Reduced in capacity to just over 130, this makes the action frighteningly close, more so through the occasional interaction of the actors with their audience.  The production is genuinely scary at times, something that only the smallest of venues can induce.

Next, the theater itself is more than just a place of entertainment.  It is at the heart of the local community, providing a nursery and other services to the people living nearby.  In fact, when first built it was designed as a community center for the largely immigrant population living in that part of New York.  Nearby Bleeker Street was immortalized by Paul Simon in the sixties with his song of the same name.

‘The fog’s rolling in off the East River bank.

Like a shroud, it covers Bleeker Street.’

The entire area hints of the darker, danker times of Victorian London.  Then there is the conceit of the production.  This was originated in London a couple of years ago.  Nothing too unusual in that, except the show was staged in a Tooting Pie shop, which harks back to the question which opened this review – what makes a theater?  Certainly, even the tiny Barrow Street Theater holds a bigger audience than the 32 people who could squeeze into the South London food establishment, but this is a production designed around intimacy, something with which Sondheim’s musical works best.  Director Bill Buckhurst understands this better than most of the many artists who have staged the show in anything from giant Broadway Theaters (it opened in the Uris, now the Gershwin, in the late 70s) to dark church halls.  The growing, rolling sound of multiple singers during the opening number holds even more impact when the actors are able to reach out and touch their audience.  Buckhurst is able to take every element of Sondheim’s brilliance, and magnify it.

Stunning Cast

The final element of the show which creates this dark, comic joy is the cast, all of which are brilliant.  As Sweeney, Jeremy Secomb is a hyperactive mix of ruthlessness, terror and gall.  Siobhan McCarthy’s Mrs Lovett gets most laughs, her pragmatic amorality is a joy to behold.  Joseph Taylor’s naïve Tobias provides a good contrast, while Duncan Smith’s compassionless Turpin echoes an era when the poor were considered a different species.  These four were in the original Tooting production – for those who have not visited the area, it is a rather run down but diverse area of South London.  Four American actors are equally impressive in the production, especially Alex Finke as Sweeney’s gentle daughter Johanna.

Find A Ticket If You Can

The best seats are without doubt the ones that come with the pies.  But be prepared to find yourself involved in the action, if you choose these.  Really, though, every single view is superb, and even the back of the theater leaves you fully involved in the intimacy of the production.

The show is not cheap, considering it is Off-Broadway.  Broadway.com has seats from $186, which include over $50 in fees (rather in tune with one of the play’s themes, some might think}.  This price gets you pie-free into either the Mezzanine or the Orchestra stalls.  Add a pastry covered treat and the cost increases to $217.  For premium seats, you will need to fork out $272.  Bear in mind, though, that this is a popular show in a small venue.  At the time of writing, Stubhub had only four seats left, those at $335 each and Seatgeek was completely sold out.

In fact, with the run ending on 25th February and most Friday and Saturday shows already full, anybody seeking a brilliant evening of truly remarkable theater needs to get booking soon.  Performances are Tuesday to Sunday, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Demon Barber’s time is nearly up, at least in this production.  Catch it while you can.

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