In a Broadway season that might be remembered for a lovely, pared-down minimalism – the intriguing starkness of A Doll’s House with Jessica Chastain, the less-is-more near-concert-style presentations of Into the Woods and Parade – director Thomas Kail’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will stand out for, among many other attributes, its full-on, unabashed ambition. A prodigious theatrical event that aims for greatness and achieves it, this revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterpiece is not to be missed.
With Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford leading a flawless, 25-member cast that also includes Stranger Things‘ Gaten Matarazzo (given one of the scores most beautiful songs in “Not While I’m Around,” and nailing it), the revival, opening tonight at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, makes the case that Sweeney just might be Sondheim’s greatest work (at least until the next production of Sunday in the Park comes along).
A top-tier Broadway creative team at its peak game is guided by Hamilton‘s Kail, who has perhaps never been so adept at combining grand theatricality with pin-point attention to even the smallest character detail. He’s assisted by choreographer Steven Hoggett, whose indelible work on Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is likely responsible for why so many wrongly remember that play as a musical. Here Hoggett gives Sweeney an unstoppable momentum through movement, with the large ensemble of Victorian townsfolk twitching and jerking in unison one moment and separating into a sort of synchronized chaos the next.
Nowhere is this coming together of direction, choreography and ensemble performance more thrilling than with the musical number that opens Act II: “God, That’s Good!” has the townsfolk filling the newly popular pie shop at the center of this grisly story, seated “Last Supper”-style at the counter of Mrs. Lovett’s eatery, their orgiastic expressions of delight mixing with fleeting, zombie-like convulsions – they’re eating their fellow Londoners, after all, whether they know it or not.
A bit on Sweeney‘s backstory: Based on a character popular in the 19th Century penny dreadfuls of London, the bloodthirsty, razor-toting barber caught Sondheim’s attention when the composer attended a 1973 play adaptation by Christopher Bond. Sondheim teamed with librettist Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince to present the 1979 musical, one of the composer’s most operatic, that starred Len Cariou as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, a production that would take on near-mythical status in Broadway lore.
The musical has been performed many times since, both on Broadway and Off, usually in scaled-back versions that forestall any direct comparison to the big, fully orchestrated production of ’79.
Until now. Kail, Groban and Ashford throw caution to the wind and dare to meet Sweeney on its own outsized, baked-in-the-pie terms, and emerge bloody victorious. Grammy-magnet Groban, his baritone put to even better use than in his eye-opening 2016 Broadway debut as the star of the gone-way-too-soon Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, makes himself over into a full-blown, and fully developed, Broadway star, his performance living up to every shriek and cry from the army of diehard Grobanites that greet his entrance at the Lunt-Fontanne. His Sweeney is by turns sympathetic and monstrous – mostly the latter, as it should be: Sweeney Todd, once London’s greatest barber, now its most fiendish, after a 15-year false imprisonment, his wife raped and left for dead, and his baby daughter stolen and raised by the judge behind every misfortune.
Meeting Groban’s performance every step of the way is Ashford (Sunday in the Park With George, TV’s Smash), beautifully shouldering most of the musical’s comedy elements – her timing is beat-perfect, her Cockney accent a treasure – and her superb vocals blend so well with Groban’s that we’re left hoping for an album of show tune duets as a follow-up to the inevitable Sweeney cast recording.
So the story progresses. Sweeney, escaped from prison by sea, arrives in London 15 years after his banishment, returning to the home he once shared with his wife and daughter, his former barbershop now made over as a meat pie shop by one Mrs. Nellie Lovett. With meat scarce, the shop is failing (as Lovett explains in the droll “The Worst Pies in London”), but soon enough Sweeney’s revenge fantasies and Lovett’s dreams of financial security merge into one fantastical, cannibalistic scheme: The demon barber will slit the throats of his enemies (a list that grows to encompass all of mankind) and the baker will use the byproduct to stuff her confections.
Before long, Sweeney and Lovett have no end of demand for their oddly delicious pies, and they even take on an assistant, the orphan Tobias (Matarazzo, well-advisedly replacing the character’s usual and potentially offensive dimwittedness for a simple, sweet naivete that works exceedingly well).
A subplot concerns Sweeney’s now-marriageable daughter Johanna (soprano Maria Bilbao, making a fine Broadway debut) and her secret beau Anthony (the appealing Jordan Fisher of Dear Evan Hansen and TV’s Rent: Live). Neither Johanna nor Sweeney’s pal Anthony know of the girl’s true parentage, and besides they have worries of their own: Johanna is kept, Rapunzel-like, locked up by the protective – and lascivious – judge who raised her.
Here is as good a place as any to focus on set designer Mimi Lien’s wondrous, multi-tiered creation: Bilbao’s Johanna is most often seen locked away high above – sometimes very high above – the main action of the musical, just as Sweeney’s barbarism (no pun intended) is typically kept to the second-tier shop centered by the famous trick barber’s chair that dispatches the dead through a chute delivering the ready-for-grinding bodies directly to Mrs. Lovett’s basement bakehouse. Victorian London was nothing if not hierarchical.
Just as she did with her theater-filling design for Great Comet, Lien here uses every inch of space in the vast performance area of the immense and regal Lunt-Fontanne. Beneath a large, soot-grimed brick archway and a metal bridge that serves a multitude of uses, Lien’s encapsulation of Victorian gloom includes a humongous, working crane that teeters ominously over the proceedings and, at times, over the audience, the very symbol of a new, crushing modernity, a mechanism as dehumanizing as it is functional.
The set is part and parcel of an impeccable creative effort that includes Emilio Sosa’s costumes, Natasha Katz’s spooky German Expressionist lighting design, J. Jared Janas’ spot-on wig, hair and makeup designs, some thrilling special effects courtesy of Jeremy Chernick and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design that gives vivid life and breadth to Jonathan Tunick’s full-bodied orchestrations.
Even in this creative environment, and with musical numbers that rank among Sondheim’s greatest – just a sampling: “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “Poor Thing,” “Johanna,” “Pretty Women,” “Not While I’m Around” and that comic gem “A Little Priest” – a cast could have any number of opportunities to misfire. Sweeney Todd is a vocally challenging work, to say the least, and its razor’s edge balance of brutality and comedy in both score and book could draw blood on any but the most capable performers.
This production needn’t worry about that. The large cast is without a weak link. Groban, Ashford and Matarazzo would be well-advised to start thinking about what they’ll wear to this year’s Tony ceremony (though competition in the musical categories is going to be fierce). Bilbao and Fisher are up to the challenge of holding our interest when Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett aren’t around, and Jamie Jackson as Judge Turpin and John Rapson as Beadle Bamford are everything you could want in Victorian villainy and musical harmony. Ruthie Ann Miles, as the beggar woman with secrets of her own, is, as always, a delight, whether singing (“No Place Like London”) or warning, Cassandra-like, of “Mischief! Mischief! Mischief!”
Much has been made over the years about Sondheim’s disagreements with Prince over the presentation and even the meaning of Sweeney Todd, with the composer forever insisting that the story was a specific, personal tale of a man’s obsession for revenge, while Prince saw something larger, more expansive, with Sweeney and his fellow Londoners caught up in history’s grinder of industrialism. In this latest revival of the many-layered work, Kail and his company of actors and designers have managed to serve both masters, delivering, with all the efficiency of that multipurpose barber chair, a Sweeney Todd that is as particular as it is sweeping, and as captivating in sight as it is magnificent in sound.
Title: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street
Venue: Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
Director: Thomas Kail
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Principal Cast: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, Jordan Fisher, Gaten Matarazzo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Maria Bilbao, Jamie Jackson, John Rapson, Nicholas Christopher.
Running time: 2 hr 45 min (including intermission)