“Did you come here for a pie, sir?” asks the entrepreneurial and shameless Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s glorious 1979 musical thriller Sweeney Todd: A Musical Thriller, which currently feels a lot more like Sweeney Todd: A Pie Shop Entertainment.
Sweeney is a gory and glorious concoction of over-the-top melodrama, English music hall, horror movies, opera, black comedy, social criticism and breaking of the fourth wall. It can be staged and interpreted in infinite ways, ranging from Hal Prince’s supersized original 1979 production (with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury) set around an iron foundry, to the infamous 2005 Broadway revival where the cast (including Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone) simultaneously doubled as the orchestra, to concert productions with full orchestra.
Tooting Arts Club’s environmental and scaled-down production (with just eight actors, three musicians and very few available seats), which originated in London and is now playing Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater in the West Village, is built around a working pie-shop environment, not unlike the one operated by Mrs. Lovett. Audience members can even dine on mash and pie (prepared by a former White House pastry chef).
When the production opened in late February, it combined holdovers from the original London production (including Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney and Siobhán McCarthy as Mrs. Lovett) with local talent including Brad Oscar (The Producers), Matt Doyle (War Horse) and Alex Finke (Les Miz). Upon receiving mostly rave reviews, its limited run was quickly extended through the end of the year.
Now playing Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess, Les Miz) and Carolee Carmello (Mamma Mia!, Parade), who are both Tony nominees and Broadway regulars who have originated parts in various flop musicals and taken over roles in long-running musicals (three years ago, Lewis recently became the first African-American actor to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera).
Personally, I am not much of a fan of pie-show Sweeney. The concept is cute at first, but Sweeney is a heavily plotted drama that involves many different locations. This production is awkwardly staged around just a service counter and communal tables, and few seats are not obstructed in some way. At its best, Sweeney can be terrifying, mesmerizing and sweeping, but this production sacrifices the storytelling and score for the sake of a gimmick. In 2012, I caught the London production with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball and thought it was the best one I’ve seen to date, and I wish it had transferred to New York.
All that being said, getting to see Lewis and Carmello as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett more than justifies a return visit to the pie shop. With his rich voice, somber mood and imposing physique, Lewis is an ideal Sweeney. Carolee, who is better known for musical drama than musical comedy, makes for an absolutely vivacious Mrs. Lovett. I am hard pressed to think of any prior production of Sweeney where both the parts of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett have been sung so well.