NEW YORK — Mrs. Lovett is still merrily making the worst pies in London, but in the pie shop where patrons sit during the latest revival of “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” you won’t be hearing many complaints about the culinary — or musical — refreshments.
The close embrace by a strong-voiced cast of eight surely has something to do with this, in director Bill Buckhurst’s enjoyable though by no means revelatory rendition of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s beloved musical about a homicidal London barber with a baked-in grudge.
“Sweeney’s” bloody toll has been tabulated many times since the 1979 Broadway original; another version just ended a run at Olney Theatre Center. Sondheim’s crackling score, a malicious confection laced with melodious pastiche and lacerating wit, has been sung in opera houses and even on Broadway by actors doubling as the orchestra. The conceit this time, hatched in a London production that has moved with its original Sweeney (Jeremy Secomb) and his pragmatically diabolical partner, Mrs. Lovett (Siobhán McCarthy), to off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre, is placing the audience in the scene of the crimes.
The little theater in Greenwich Village has been converted by set and costume designer Simon Kenny into an English-style “pie and mash” shop. It’s a nifty idea, as it offers an opportunity for “Sweeney Todd” to be, in the popular theatrical fashion, an immersive event, with actors warbling on tabletops and McCarthy delivering the syncopated “Worst Pies in London” number, with us in the roles of her would-be customers. For those who want the deluxe experience, you can preorder (at an additional cost, of course) a vegetable or meat pie and consume it at your seat before the show.
The best productions of “Sweeney” manage to bottle Sondheim’s black humor — epitomized by the subversively morbid Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest” — while retaining the plot’s Grand Guignol chills. This version, with a downsized cast and three-person orchestra, puts the accent as much as possible on musical comedy, which proves to be fun but cheats the terrors. The squeamish need not be wary of Sweeney’s blood thirstiness: Most of the killing is done on this occasion offstage, with beams of red light signaling the bleeding out of his victims.
Secomb’s intense, bug-eyed Sweeney prowls the shop, stopping here and there to bellow into an amused spectator’s face. Oddly enough, making him so physically accessible deprives Sweeney of some of his vacantly unhinged, alien-creature appeal. It’s a musically adept performance but not a spooky one. Mrs. Lovett, in McCarthy’s agreeable if prim portrayal, lacks some of the coarseness that allows the character’s, er, stabs at respectability to seem bitterly funny. Matt Doyle and Alex Finke, meanwhile, are ideally cast as the sailor Anthony and Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, the ingénues who redeem the slaughterer’s black-hearted view of humankind. And Joseph Taylor brings a confident vivacity to the role of Toby, the waif taken under Mrs. Lovett’s corrupted wing.
While this “Sweeney Todd” doesn’t fully cast Sondheim and Wheeler’s work in suitably terrifying shadows, it offers an invaluable consolation by serving up the score in delightfully close quarters. Where this composer is concerned, surround-sound mutes all possible objections.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Set and costumes, Simon Kenny; lighting, Amy Mae; sound, Matt Stine; music, Matt Aument; choreography, Georgina Lamb; music supervision, Benjamin Cox; shop managers, Colin Anderson, Monet Sabel. With Brad Oscar, Betsy Morgan, Duncan Smith. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets: $69.50-$147.50. At Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., New York. Visit sweeneytoddnyc.com.