Broadway Favorites in England: The Scottsboro Boys Revivified and a Modern-Dress Sweeney Todd

By Steven Suskin
10 Nov 2013

We emerge from limbo into Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, a rundown joint circa 1980 with vinyl tablecloths and paper plates, a food-encrusted toaster oven, and an electronic mosquito-zapper above the counter display. Lovett (Gillian Bevan) is a faded blonde in a pink apron with pink-striped sneakers, reading a tabloid. As she spots a customer — the timelessly ghostlike Sweeney (David Birrell) — and goes into her spiel about the worst pies in London, we see that the time, the place, and the show meld just fine.

Pirelli, our Italian lounge-singer friend, putts on in a Reliant three-wheel van with a grimy advert on the side and a barber's pole on the roof. Why not? (The tires, if you look closely, are indeed Pirellis!) Judge Turpin sings his flagellation song while gazing through space at his young ward, sprawled across the pink quilt on her bed like Lolita and not accidentally so. Everything works in this grimy stinkpit of a London, even the sexual activity that invades Sondheim's bravura first act finale, "A Little Priest." A general "with or without his privates," indeed.

Sweeney-in-the-round being necessarily wall-less, we are forced to concentrate all the more closely on the words — which in Sondheimland is an added dividend. Everything comes across clearer, allowing us to better absorb all those intricately overlapping vocals. (The second act "Johanna" has Sweeney on the deck with his barber chair, Anthony on the first ring wandering London, and Johanna on the second ring in Bedlam. Your head pivots from one to the other as they sing, like cinematic closeups.) What's more, being within seven rows of the action puts everyone right in with the characters. At the press opening, several viewers seated near the tonsorial parlor were spackled with gobs of stage blood.

Birrell and Bevan are very good, and the cast is uniformly strong with powerful vocals throughout, the work of the Messrs. Brining and Richmond's work is inventive but never obtrusive, and the chamber orchestra ably supports it all. (While the inevitable synthesizers are present, orchestrator David Shrubsole keeps three reeds and a cello in the forefront.)

This modern-dress, scenery-less production of the Sondheim/Wheeler masterwork is not the finest Sweeney I've ever seen, but it is sure one of the most memorable.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at