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Off Broadway Review: ‘Sweeney Todd’ With Real Meat Pies

Variety logo Variety 3/2/2017 Marilyn Stasio
© Provided by Variety

The Tooting Arts Club, a site-specific London community theater, has scored the ideal New York venue for its audience-pleasing version of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  Tucked into Off Broadway’s Barrow Street Theater (transformed into “Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop,” after the oldest such establishment in London, where the show originated), this genial staging of the Hugh Wheeler-Stephen Sondheim musical invites audiences to eat, drink, and dodge the actors dancing on the tables.

As a curtain-raiser, Bill Yosses (the White House Executive Pastry Chef during the Obama administration) turns out tasty meat pies and mashed potatoes for early arrivals. It’s family seating for those who opt for food, although the shop seems to be all out of jellied eels at the moment. That means a dozen theatergoers sharing a meal at each of six long tables spaced throughout the auditorium. The same tables turn into mini-stages during the performance, so watch your fingers when the actors break into their cramped version of Georgina Lamb’s choreographed mini-dances. (Additional seating is available in the balcony.)

The clever pop-up set by Simon Kenny — a faithful replica of Harrington’s down to the stained glass windows — extends to the barber shop where Sweeney Todd (the riveting Jeremy Secomb) plies his bloody trade; the  emporium where Mrs. Lovett (Siobhan McCarthy, lovably insane) bakes her suspiciously juicy meat pies; and a number of other settings where Sweeney’s tragedy is related in some of Sondheim’s most delicious songs.

What, really, could be funnier than Mrs. Lovett’s manic delivery of “A Little Priest” and “Worst Pies in London,” or as exquisitely tender as “Joanna” and “Not While I’m Around” or as filled with yearning as “Pretty Women”?   Not to overlook “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which still has the seductive power to make your skin crawl.

There’s barely room to swing a cat in the intimate auditorium, but savvy director Bill Buckhurst manages to keep the traffic moving up and down a narrow set of stairs and through a darkened doorway where unwary visitors in need of a shave tend to disappear, never to be seen again.  Tiny as it is, the house even accommodates an onstage trio of musicians on piano, violin, and clarinet. (Matt Aument is music director.)

Some credit goes to the house acoustics, but even so, the voices of the cast are uniformly robust.  Secomb’s piercing glare and growling baritone give the demon barber the kind of sex appeal that makes mincemeat of a lusty lady like Mrs. Lovett.  Matt Doyle has a tenor’s own sweetness as the young swain who loves Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna (Alex Finke).  And blimey, there’s Brad Oscar (from “Something Rotten!”) as Beadle Bamford.

This tight-knit company, some of whom have been with the show since it originated in Tooting, also has a flair for the show’s undercurrents of black humor. So be prepared for that huckster Adolfo Pirelli (Betsy Morgan) to rub “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” on every uncovered bald head in sight. And do expect lighting designer Amy Mae and sound man Matt Stine to set up a bloody racket when Sweeney’s victims go shuffling off to their deaths.

All in all, this cheerily gory show is great family fun — if your family happens to be the Munsters.

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