'Sweeney Todd' review — Josh Groban-led revival doesn't frighten, but still thrills
Read our four-star review of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd on Broadway, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Sweeney Todd is back on Broadway, and there’s much to savor in this musical revival starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. Stephen Sondheim’s sublime score sounds deliciously lush as played by the 26-piece orchestra, the singing is uniformly excellent, and Hugh Wheeler’s morbidly gripping story unfolds in crisp fashion.
However, there’s an ingredient missing in Hamilton director Thomas Kail’s star-studded but standard take on the 1979 musical: its essential dark edge. Subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the show motors on Sweeney’s monstrous dimensions. Absent that, or even a faint whiff of borderline madness from what he’s been dealt, the production comes off as a bit too tame.
Gorgeous music threads throughout this grisly thriller. Sweeney (Groban) returns to London after being wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years. Mourning the loss of his family because of a corrupt judge and his henchman, the barber swears revenge on the duo. He’ll use his straight razors for payback. Pie shop proprietor Mrs. Lovett (Ashford), who has a thing for Sweeney, becomes his accomplice. When Sweeney’s throat-slitting escalates, she grinds his victims into makings for meat pies. Business booms. But there’s no way this tale can have a happy ending.
Mimi Lien’s two-tiered set makes use of the stage and a bridge above it. A counter pushed into place is the pie shop, and a crane contraption doubles as a madhouse. The bridge is used in a striking moment for a silhouetted dance. Elsewhere, Steven Hoggett’s choreography recalls awkward aerobics, particularly when all hell breaks loose near the end. Natasha Katz’s dramatic lighting is the star of the physical production.
Both leads deliver exactly what they’re best at. Groban, a Tony nominee for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, has a nice-guy persona and lacks the sinister side to convince as a man "even rats fear," according to the title song. He also blends into the crowd in group scenes. But when he sings, Groban commands focus 100 percent. He taps directly into the mournful tones of “The Barber and His Wife,” in which he recalls his past, and the despair of “Epiphany,” as he faces his future.
Last seen on Broadway as Dot in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, Ashford is a very fine singer, but her comic chops set her apart. She won a Tony for You Can’t Take It With You, a play in which she bounced off the walls. She is clearly in her comfort zone here.
Sporting a messy hairdo a la Angela Lansbury, the original Mrs. Lovett, Ashford throws herself into the part – and onto the stage. She bump-bump-bumps down a staircase on her fanny. She channels the Three Stooges and spins while on her side on the floor. She’s a riot, and she also oozes vulnerability. As funny as she is, Mrs. Lovett is a villain because she keeps a life-and-death secret from Sweeney.
Gaten Matarazzo of Stranger Things plays Tobias, who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s helper. He makes the most of the famous song “Not While I’m Around.” Jordan Fisher and Maria Bilbao ably fill out the romantic subplot as the thwarted young lovebirds Anthony and Johanna.
The beggar woman, played by Ruthie Ann Miles, looms extra large in this version. In a provocative stroke, when she enters the barber shop, she points here and there as if remembering something. Is her mind really gone? That question makes her fate all the more tragic – and Sweeney’s words more resonant.
“We all deserve to die,” Sweeney sings. He means himself and Mrs. Lovett. In this revival, the barber and the baker go hand in hand to hell.
Photo credit: Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
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