Walking out of Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop at the Barrow Street Theatre last night, all I could keep saying was “wow.”
I have quite the way with words, I know.
Last fall, Matt Doyle, an actor I follow on Twitter, announced that he was going to be performing off-Broadway in Sweeney Todd. I enjoy Matt’s twitter feed (and his singing, check him out on iTunes) and I adore Sweeney Todd so I immediately looked into getting tickets. Finding out it was going to be the New York premier of the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd only ensured that I would find a way to New York to see Matt portray Anthony Hope. So with no other expectations than to get to see Matt perform in person and see a theater turned into a pie shop and used as the “stage” for the show, I snagged what turned out to be really great seats for the evening show on March 11th.
Anyone who follows musical theater can look at the cast list and realize this production would, at the very least, sound fantastic. In the 8-person cast, there isn’t one dud. Jeremy Secomb (Sweeney Todd), Siobhán McCarthy (Mrs. Lovett), Duncan Smith (Judge Turpin), and Joseph Taylor (Tobias) all crossed the ocean and joined the cast after performing the same roles in London. Matt Doyle, Alex Finke (Johanna), and Betsy Morgan (playing both the Beggar Woman and Pirelli) have impressive theater resumes (for Finke and Morgan that includes time in Les Misérables during it’s most recent rendition on Broadway). And Brad Oscar (Beadle Bamford) is well-known for multiple Tony Award-nominated performances. If you’re the type of person to be turned off by and off-Broadway production (do those people still exist? God, I hope not!) this is a cast that rivals some shows ON Broadway right now.
For me, the most remarkable part of being able to witness their performances was not just listening but actually HEARING their singing. When your sit away from the stage in an audience and have to rely on the sound system of the theater, there is sometimes a disconnect. Often I’ve watched a show and genuinely wondered if we were listening to a recording. But having the actors breath on you, walking by you while they are singing and in some cases having them sing RIGHT TO YOU was exhilarating.
There wasn’t one bad note or one muffed line. It wasn’t until after the show that I remembered it was Saturday which meant the cast had a two show day and there was nothing stale or tired about their performances. Everyone’s eyes were shining, gleaming, with what I interpreted as excitement for what they were doing. There was no boredom or fatigue (and I’m sure that both must creep in when you’re doing eight shows a week) as far as we could see.
Speaking of eyes, Amy Mae, the Lighting Designer for the show, deserves an award if not at least a ton of recognition. There were moments in the show were Jeremy Secomb’s eyes were lit in such a way that you could see the insanity shining through. Credit also goes to Secomb, who, honestly, is the best Todd I’ve seen (both in person and though video). His rage tinged with bouts of happiness made me shiver. (I’ve never been a fan of the “…and I’m full of joy” line that end Epiphany. Maybe I’ve never heard it delivered in a way that scared the hell out of me like Secomb did?)
But back to Amy Mae for a minute. With candles, lanterns, and minimal spotlights around the shop, she lit this production with an eerie, elegant simplicity that shouldn’t go unappreciated. Someone with lesser talents would have blinded us with the glare or made it impossible to see the action, but Mae’s touch was perfect and enhanced the atmosphere without taking it over.
In looking at the Playbill for the 1981 version I watched in Boston and see that the 9 main actors (with Pirelli and the Beggar Woman being played by different people) were joined by a company of 17, including 3 swings and accompanied by a full orchestra. THIS production has 8 principal actors and four standbys, with THREE people making up the orchestra. Not once last night did I think there was something missing. Not vocally, not instrumentally, and definitely not in the acting.
To my surprise, going by my memory and the video evidence of the production I saw, I think the Sweeney Todd I witnessed last night was better than the tour I saw in 1981.
(With massive apologies to Angela Lansbury and George Hearn who are absolutely tremendous performers who did and do bring me great joy.)
But, really, Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy will now and forever be my Mr. T. and Mrs. Lovett. Their voices are powerful, their performances were enthralling, and at times each of them left me breathless.
If I’m being completely honest, there is an attractiveness that Secomb brings that I’ve never noticed with another Sweeney Todd (not even Johnny Depp). Last night was the first time I actually GOT why Mrs. Lovett had it so hard for him because I did too.
Speaking of love, the Johanna and Anthony subplot has always been the weak link in the story for me. I always found Johanna flighty and Anthony impetuous and both of them oblivious to anything around them and it has always annoyed the hell out of me. Alex Finke and Matt Doyle have changed my mind. Maybe it was because I could hear them and feel them as they made their ways through the room. Doyle’s skill both in acting and singing gives Anthony dimension I’ve not seen in another production and, again, we get a bit of sex appeal here for good measure. Finke’s Johanna, while still relatively demure, has spirit and a feistiness that comes shining through, especially when she shares time with Doyle. I spent years saying “They don’t even really know each other; how can they be in love?” and last night I wasn’t questioning it at all. They’re in love and I SO wanted them to be happy.
I don’t know that I’ve given the show and the performers the appreciation they deserve so I’ll just say this: Go see this show. Sweeney Todd might be 38 years old, but this is original and fresh and you’ve not seen anything like it. It is worth your time, it is worth your money, and you owe it to yourself to engage in something so wonderful.