All productions of Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, since the original 1979 version set inside a vast industrial warehouse have been downscaled compromises. Still, there are advantages to intimacy and proximity, particularly when the audience is nose-to-nose with that iconic vengeful serial killer born of the old British penny dreadful novels.
Currently at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre is a very clever new take on the show from London, thanks to The Tooting Arts Club. It reconfigured the playhouse – at a fraction of the cost of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 uptown – into a pie shop, with long communal tables for the audience/customers to sit at and the performers to use as part of their stage. Capping the environmental concept, savory pies – chicken or veggie – are served before the show. Who says New York has no dinner theater?
The tasty gimmicks aside, Sweeney Todd remains one of the great works of the musical theater and is always welcome, even with a drastically reduced cast of eight and three musicians. Director Bill Buckhurst does some ingenious doubling of characters – props to Stacie Bono for playing the Beggar Woman and Sweeney’s tonsorial rival Adolfo Pirelli – and crafty use of the space, though occasionally he stages himself into a corner.
Briefly, the story involves a barber who was framed and convicted by a lascivious judge, who lusted after the barber’s wife and, currently, his daughter. Now back in London from prison, he sets up shop above the digs of Nellie Lovett. She now only pines for Sweeney, but comes up with a tasty use for the victims he amasses as he practices his shaving skills while waiting his chance to cut the judge’s throat.
The British leading players had already come and gone by late spring, replaced quite capably by Norm Lewis as Sweeney and Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett. He is a master of menace and she finds places for humor that were not previously mined. Brad Oscar is aptly overbearing as Beadle Bamford and Alex Finke trills for thrills as ingénue Johanna. In all, a bloody good evening of theater.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street. Through Dec. 31. $69.50 – $162.50. 866-811-4111.
Broadway continues its slide into the place for theme park musical entertainments, but occasionally a few serious plays arrive and find a welcoming audience:
Sweat – Watch Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, and try not to think of Donald Trump and the mess our nation is now in. He is like the elephant in the room, of rather the barroom, for she has written a play in the great tradition of dramas set in that arena of conflict and truth-telling – the neighborhood tavern.
This is Nottage’s second Pulitzer – the first woman to ever earn two – and like her earlier Ruined, about the plight of women in the war-torn Republic of Congo, Sweat grew out of her journalistic interviews with beleaguered blue-collar factory workers in Pennsylvania. She sets the play in Reading, Pa., in the year 2000 – when America was last great? – and 2008, as the economy was tumbling and taking down the middle class with it.
The focus is in three women, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Tracey (Johanna Day), and Jessie (Alison Wright), longtime friends and co-workers at a steel tubing plant where they have been employed since high school.
Their friendship will be sorely tested by the word that the plant wants to elevate someone from the assembly line into management. The job goes to Cynthia, who is African-American, and Tracey smells reverse racism in the decision. Resentments keep bubbling and, yes, turn violent when the bar’s go-fer, a Colombian immigrant named Oscar, gets an entry job at the plant over unemployed white guys. Like the plays of August Wilson that end in black-on-black violence, Nottage’s Sweat illustrates how the blue collar barflies – helpless to fight the real cause of their discontent – take it out on each other.
Sweat is yet another play to arrive on Broadway after substantial development elsewhere – Oregon Shakespeare, Arena Stage – a true American product. Director Kate Whoriskey helmed an earlier production at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, calibrating the pressure cooker plot for maximum explosive effect.
SWEAT, Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., $59-$149. 212-239-6200.
Oslo — Peace in the Middle East remains an elusive quest, unlikely to ever be attained. But for a short time in 1993, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization came together, met behind closed doors and signed a treaty that came to be known as the Oslo Accords.
Little is known or recorded of what happened in Norway almost a quarter-century ago, which gives playwright J.T. Rogers the dramatic license to make some engrossing suppositions in his three-hour work of historical fiction, called simply Oslo.
On one side of the vast Vivian Beaumont stage are the wily Israeli statesmen, on the other are their PLO counterparts. And yes, there is plenty of shouting and heated argument between them. At the center of the play, yet off on the periphery during negotiations, is a Norwegian couple, Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), who engineered the creation of the talks and kept them from falling apart. Who knew?
So we watch as the two sides come to various impasses and though we know that the accords were signed, that seems impossible from what is transpiring onstage. It brings to mind 1776, in which the North and the South could not agree and the evening seems headed towards an unsigned Declaration of Independence.
In a large cast, Rogers crafts numerous indelible characters, memorably realized here. Foremost among them is Michael Aranov as Israeli foreign minister Uri Savir, who arrives mid-talks in full swagger to salvage the stalemate. And keep an eye on Anthony Azizi as PLO finance minister Ahmed Ourie, who may or may not be phoning home for authorization of compromises.
The production is directed by Lincoln Center’s main man, Bartlett Sher, who switches effortlessly from musicals to high drama. The thought occurs that the play could easily stand to be trimmed in length, but perhaps Rogers and Sher want us to be exhausted, just like the negotiators of the accords.
OSLO, 150 W. 65th St., $87-$147, 212- 239-6200.
Spamilton — What, you couldn’t get tickets to Hamilton? If it makes you feel any better, neither could I, but I did see Spamilton, the latest parody revue from Gerard (Forbidden Broadway) Alessandrini, which takes extended aim at Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson.
Unlike Alessandrini’s other scattershot revues, which have been delighting theater-savvy audiences with their wicked ways for the past three decades, Spamilton sort of has a dramatic through line. It tells the history of an ambitious, talented rapper – yes, Miranda – who brings his revolutionary hip-hop cadences to the masses while telling the saga of a particular Founding Father, and in so doing became incredibly rich and famous. Alessandrini has always been a musical chameleon and the more familiar you are with the Hamilton score, the more enjoyment you can get from his tongue-in-cheek mimickry.
Yes, the lyrics speed by like a freight train, but the ones you can catch are awfully clever and affectionately barbed. Typical is this new lyric to the Hamilton song, “What’s I Miss?”: “What’d you miss?/The lyrics go by so fast. You are in the abyss/ Can you believe you paid $800 for this?”
As with past Forbidden Broadways, the production’s success is very dependent on the performers. Although there were several new cast members – Robert Ariza, Larry Owens and Nicole Vanessa Ortiz – joining holdovers Chris Anthony Giles and Dan Rosales on the Sunday evening performance I caught, they were all up to speed and vocally nimble. The show’s format calls for a guest diva – the estimable Christine Pedi at my show – who played, among other things The Beggar Woman from Sweeney Todd. Of course, what she was begging for was Hamilton tickets.
To fill out the 80-minute running time, Alessandrini tossed in a hodge-podge of gags about other Broadway shows like reliable targets Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. And for sheer nuttiness, he considered the results of combining titles, such as An American Psycho in Paris.
Somehow, there is something reassuring about the health of Broadway that it can sustain the slings and arrows of Alessandrini’s wisecracks. And even a mega-hit like Hamilton is not immune from such barrages.
SPAMILTON, The Triad, 158 W. 72nd St. $59 – $84.90, plus a two-drink minimum. 212-279-4200.