Holidays for Death
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Parental advisory: Keep young children away from the new production of “Sweeney Todd” now at the Barrow Street Theatre. It is guaranteed to give them nightmares for weeks. Happily, what might make children check under the bed for the monstrous, murderous barber is exactly why adults should search out tickets, wherever they can find them.
With a cast of eight, a scaled-down score played by three musicians, and an immersive setting in a reproduced pie shop, the Tooting Arts Club production of the classic musical is easily the most thrilling (in every sense of the word) show in town.
The story of the demon barber first appeared in England as an 18-part serial from 1846 to 1847 about a madman who murdered people while his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, rendered the dear departed into delectable delicacies. It’s the stuff of classic horror and a popular literary form of the time, the Penny Dreadful, designed to scare readers by making the quotidian — everybody shaves, after all! — horrific.
A magnificent teeny “Sweeney” and two short plays take audiences to the brink of the inevitable
The original 1979 Broadway production with a book by Hugh Wheeler, adapted from Christopher Bond’s play, and a score by Stephen Sondheim was carried off in enormous scale under Hal Prince’s direction, becoming the story of a man at the mercy of an industrial machine, in a 1,900-seat theater. Dazzling and overwhelming, it was operatic in its scope.
Now, under the keen and inspired direction of Bill Buckhurst, the show plays in a 130-seat down-at-the-heels pie shop (you can come early and get a pie and mash meal, for an additional fee) where the actors are often in your face, literally. The production takes on a marvelous, threatening intimacy, giving audiences the idea that they could be the next victims.
More importantly, the focus shifts to Sweeney’s personal thirst for revenge, first, against those who exiled him to Australia on a trumped-up charge to have access to his wife and steal his daughter and, then, to the human race as a whole. Determined to get even with anyone who has crossed him, Sweeney lashes out in rage, armed with his precious silver, straight razors — instead of, say, a Twitter account — as he plans his bloody journey. When his lover, Mrs. Lovett, suggests a thrifty, grisly use for the corpses (“Business needs a lift. Debts to be erased,” she sings), the die is cast and the horrors begin. This production is smaller, to be sure, but all the more harrowing — and exciting — because of that. The palpable tension repeatedly sends delicious frissons of horror up the spine.
“Sweeney Todd’s” score has always been a work of genius, and hearing it in the reduced arrangement by Benjamin Cox, it loses nothing. There are familiar lines that are heard as if new with just a piano, violin, and clarinet. The sounds that music director Matt Aument coaxes from an upright piano can make you gasp.
And then there’s the company. They are brilliant, each giving performances that are perfect for the scale of the space while at the same time expansive and intense. Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney is the embodiment of obsessive evil that will make your blood run cold. When he sings that he will have both vengeance and salvation, you better hope he’s not looking at you. His resonant baritone can be dark and savage and even darker when he tries to lighten the mood as in “A Little Priest.”
Siobhán McCarthy as Mrs. Lovett is both the doting lover to Sweeney, who believes he has no family left on his return, and the quintessential opportunist. McCarthy imbues the role with all the colors of the character while singing some of the most challenging music ever written for a leading lady.
As the young lovers, Matt Doyle as Anthony and Alex Finke as Johanna are sublime, with gorgeous voices and the near-perfect technique required by the roles. You won’t miss a single lyric or internal joke. The rest of the company including Brad Oscar, Joseph Taylor, Betsy Morgan, and Duncan Smith are all superb. At times, you may be amazed at how only eight voices can produce such musical richness.
It might be surprising that an orgy of violence and bloodletting could bring an audience to its feet cheering rapturously, as at the performance I saw. Yet, a trip into hell and a safe arrival home is the very essence of horror. Fear and catharsis, arguably, give us a chance to purge our own demons, and when a production is as amazing as this one, it’s a bloody joy.
Broadway veterans Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello take over the lead roles on April 11. There are only a few scattered seats available for the rest of the run with the current cast, but the TodayTix app has a $39 lottery for every performance.
If the relentlessly chipper singing group One Direction had decided to interpret absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, the result might be “Wakey, Wakey,” playwright Will Eno’s resolutely upbeat play about rapidly approaching death. It has a “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” message about living life while you’re here. In lesser hands, that might be cloying.
However, Eno’s consistently surprising writing finds a lyricism in musings on the ordinary as death approaches, and Michael Emerson’s focused and warmhearted performance as Guy creates an engaging and affecting 75 minutes. The very first moment has Guy prone on the floor, looking up and saying, “Is it now? I thought I had more time.” This is, of course, the essence of experience as one becomes aware that the end is near, something we mostly assiduously avoid confronting.
Using note cards to assist his failing memory, Guy runs the gamut from upbeat to gloomy, condensing the entire experience of life’s joys and losses into a meditation that is at once prosaic and poetic. When a caregiver, played by the wonderful January LaVoy, arrives to ease Guy’s death, the inevitable departure is more a celebration than a tragedy. As A.E. Housman wrote, “Today, the road all runners come.” Eno’s play suggests that reveling in the present is the best way to prepare for that timeless trip.
Across the lobby from Eno’s play at Signature, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody” is a retelling of the medieval mystery play “Everyman.” Like all the mystery plays, the message is simplistic and was originally crafted for an illiterate audience with maximum fear and minimal complexity. As we learn, little of this world will endure as we face death, but what matters are the things of the spirit, perfect for the 15th century.
Perhaps this level of simplicity for understanding morality is exactly what’s needed in our current culture, as well. The contemporary setting and the appealing cast in the production directed by Lila Neugebauer are just the spoonful of sugar this lesson needs. As Everybody, the main character chosen by lottery at each performance from the company, learns to let go of the things of this world to achieve a heavenly reward, we are instructed to reject ego and embrace humanity. If the lesson is rendered a little gentler for contemporary audiences — and how could it not be with the adorable Marylouise Burke as Death? — it has never been more necessary than now.
SWEENEY TODD | Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., btwn. Seventh Ave. S. & W. Fourth St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7 p.m. | $69.50-$197.50 at Ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111; TodayTix lottery is $39 | Pie & mash additional $22.50, 75 mins. prior | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission
WAKEY, WAKEY | Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Apr. 2: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $30-$75 at signaturetheatre.org or 212 244-7529 | 75 mins., no intermission
EVERYBODY | Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St. | Through Mar. 19: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $65-$85 at signaturetheatre.org or 212 244-7529 | 90 mins., no intermission