Sweeney Todd has never been quite as up-close-and-personal as it gets in the new West Village production, where the killer barber waves his infamous razors right in the audience’s faces — while serenading them, no less. And serving them actual meat pie.
Tooting Arts Club’s immersive show is now open at Barrow Street Theatre after a popular run in London, bringing along most of its cast, including the Demon Barber of Fleet Street himself: Jeremy Secomb.
“‘Are you nuts?’” the actor says, recalling his first reaction to the idea of staging Stephen Sondheim’s murderous musical inside a real pie shop in Tooting, England. “I wanted to play Sweeney Todd. But I took a week and a half to talk myself into, because I didn’t know if it was going to work. The vision of [director] Bill Buckhurst is really what sold it.”
Part of the allure was the chance to really connect with the audience, and not just by shoving next to them on a bench or growling in their faces — although that happens, too. “They almost become implicit in what’s happening in the story,” he explains. “When Sweeney starts to unravel, wanting to kill everyone he comes across, I’m looking in people’s eyes, and I’m going: ‘You’re watching me while I do this.’ And people feel elated to become part of this story. I think that is one of the most incredible parts of this show.”
The star, who’s recently played both the Phantom of the Opera and Inspector Javert on the West End, admits: “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown into these roles that are sort of darker, let’s say.”
Another feature of this niche production — which has already been extended through Dec. 31 — is that it’s staged inside a mock-up of the British tuck shop where it began. Barrow Street Theatre was fully gutted and transformed into a copy of Harrington’s Pie and Mash. For $22.50, audience members can enjoy a meal before the show. (Don’t worry, they opted for chicken over red meat for some reason, and yes, vegetarian options are available.)
From Tooting to New York, the space grew from seating 34 to 130. “I was a little worried it wasn’t going to be as intimate, or have the same feel,” Secomb says. But in fact, the move afforded new opportunities. “We have space that we didn’t have originally. So the movement has evolved, and this production has become a little more polished. Choreographer Georgina Lamb worked to get the company as a whole to move together, to create a unity we never had before.”
However, the orchestra is still just three pieces: a piano, clarinet and violin. Now and again, the modest cast cleverly contributes by playing along on silverware, tabletops or even a row of bottles at the bar. And, of course, they contribute their voices — in this rare case, without microphones.
“It’s an amazing thing to hear someone sing live, close to you, if that’s not something you have access to in your life,” Secomb says. “You can actually feel the sound: There’s a resonance in the voice, you can feel it in the chest. In the stripped-down intimacy of our production, it works so well.”
Reflecting on the unique experience, Secomb touches on a good reason tickets are selling so fast and why the show might have attracted a tour de force like Norm Lewis to replace him when he returns to Les Miserables this April: “It’s unlike any other Sweeney Todd you’re likely to see.”